Poor career guidance and isolation are issues for many women working in science, technology and engineering. Mixed-sex mentoring may be a solution, as Sharon Ann Holgate finds out.
"It was a broadening experience. You get to hear about someone else with a different background."
"It helps you to think about you."
"What was so nice was that I found that my experiences are not unusual."
These are just some of the comments from female faculty members at Imperial College. It was not that they had just come out of a particularly inspiring lecture. They were describing their experiences of having a mentor.
These women all work in the sciences, engineering or technology, and they are in a minority. Not only are the numbers of women entering these professions relatively low, there is also a significant dropout rate at each stage up the academic career ladder.
Last year, women accounted for 17 per cent of civil engineering graduates and 26 per cent of physics graduates. Meanwhile, only about 2 per cent of physics professors are women, and there is not a single female professor in civil engineering. Even in the biosciences, which contain a much higher percentage of women at the lower levels, fewer than 10 per cent of chairs are held by women.
Aware of this situation, Imperial College carried out a survey of its female faculty 18 months ago. The aim was to discover the nature and extent of any problems women were facing, and what sort of mechanisms would help them remain in their chosen fields.
Dorothy Griffiths from Imperial College's Management School says that insufficient career guidance, isolation and lack of support were cited as problems for women.
Another problem is that careers in these areas are often laboratory based, Griffiths says. "This means there is a requirement to be physically present for long hours. I think that is one of the things that is most difficult to combine with childcare."
Some women also experience difficulties fitting into such male-dominated subjects. "If you think about it, a lot of men get very easily hooked into networks. For women that's harder," Griffiths explains.
Starting a mentoring scheme seemed an appropriate response to these difficulties, so Imperial applied for a grant to the Athena project, which aims to advance the position of women in science, engineering and technology in higher education. Athena's funding comes from the funding councils, the Promoting Science, Engineering and Technology for Women Unit in the Office of Science and Technology and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. It awarded Imperial College £9,000 to run a pilot scheme, which began in October 1999.
Griffiths, who is a sociologist, became project leader for the mentoring scheme, but she is quick to point out that her involvement was not a case of someone just coming in from the management school and trying to organising everybody.
"I've written about, talked about and been concerned about the position of women in engineering and science and technology for all of my career," she says. "This project has given me a practical opportunity to try to do something to make a difference for some of them." In addition to Griffiths, the project team included physicist David Caplin and Imperial's director of personnel, Marion Kimberley.
Mentors were offered to female faculty and postdocs under 35, and 41 per cent of those eligible took up the offer. This resulted in 32 mentor-mentee pairs. Had more women wanted to participate, there would have been no problem finding them a partner.
"We had an overwhelming response to our request to become mentors," Griffiths says. "People concerned about the issue were happy to do anything they could to help."
After an initial briefing session, the pairs were left to meet as many times as they wanted over the academic year. The project ended in June. Since then, Griffiths and her colleagues have been evaluating its success.
"Seventy per cent of the mentees said they'd got the benefits they had expected or hoped for, and 90 per cent thought the college should continue with the scheme. They gave it a very positive vote," Griffiths says.
In general, mentees reported greater confidence and valued the level of support given by their mentors. The topics discussed included career progression, how things operate in a different department or field, and balancing a career and a family. In addition, some of the postdocs wanted advice on how to go about getting a lectureship.
"I think one of the lessons we have learned is that people want mentors for different reasons and that a mentoring scheme needs to be able to accommodate these differences," Griffiths says.
The results disproved popular thinking on mentoring women. "One of the things to come out is that men can mentor women successfully, and I think that is very important in any institution like this where there are relatively few senior women academics," Griffiths says.
The experience of mentoring women seemed to benefit the male mentors as well. "Quite a few of them said it made them reflect on their own careers, the position of women in their own departments, and the position of women in science, engineering and technology generally," Griffiths explains.
However, Griffiths acknowledges that having a male mentor may not always be appropriate. In future, she would ask potential mentees if they want to talk about balancing career and family with a woman who has been in the same situation, and would make sure those women are provided with a female mentor.
Griffiths believes that similar schemes could benefit a variety of institutions, but she thinks it is vital for any such project to have high-level support.
"Having the Athena money gave us a justification from outside, and having support from the top of the college gave us an enormous credibility inside," she explains.
"The rector signed the original application to Athena and also issued the personal invitation letters to people to become mentors, and those asking the women if they wanted to have a mentor," she continues.
The project committee will soon have its final meeting, at which it plans to recommend that the scheme be continued. Griffiths certainly has some long-term aims in mind. "I would like it to help individual women, and I would like it to contribute to the culture of Imperial College as being a place where women are welcomed, and where they can build successful careers," she says.
She also hopes "it will make a difference to how some women think about a career in science, engineering and technology, and may persuade more to stay."