Nationwide project uses peer-mentoring to provide support for women in STEMPosted: May 6, 2012
A nationwide project will kick off this year to create a network of alliance for women academics working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The project, led by Professor Joanne Smieja of Gonzaga University, received a grant of US$598,611 from the National Science Foundation to run this programme for four years. There is a total of 70 women STEM professors from 25 institutions across the United States (US) who have signed up to participate.
Few women faculty in STEM departments
According to Prof Smieja, undergraduate institutions in the US have relatively small STEM departments where the total number of staff is between seven and 12. Often, within those departments, only one or two of them will be women, and being a minority can be daunting.
“This leads to special challenges, because a woman in that situation doesn’t have others to turn to or going through the same kind of experiences,” said Prof Smieja.
The inspiration behind the project
In 2010, Prof Smieja became acquainted with someone who had been part of an earlier advanced grant by NSF that was “specifically designed to help women in academic situations in STEM fields advance their careers”. Her acquaintance gained so much from the grant, and told Prof Smieja that the involvement was “transformational”, and that it “positively affected her outlook in her job, her productivity in terms of her research, and her career”.
Spurred on by this acquaintance’s experience, Prof Smieja came up with her own similar project.
“What I wanted to do was to build on this previous grant,” said Prof Smieja. “But I wanted to be slightly different in that with this previous grant, there were four alliances, three of which were composed of senior women in chemistry, and one was senior woman in physics.”
However, in her project, there will be 14 alliances, where every group of three will contain women from the same disciplines. For example, the chemistry group will be made up of three senior women, three mid-career women, and three women in their early career. Other disciplines include mathematics, physics, computer science, and biology.
How does it work? Women will primarily be peer-mentoring other women in their own alliance internet communication tools such as Skype. But the grant will bring all the alliances together three times during the four years in a nationwide meeting.
“The first meeting will be held in Kansas City in conjunction with a national organisation called Project Kaleidoscope,” Prof Smieja enthused. “Participants across alliances will meet and talk about major issues: for example, the women in chemistry will discuss ways of overcoming obstacles.”
Prof Smieja refers to this as vertical mentoring. Another type of mentoring, horizontal mentoring, involves communication between women in all disciplines. So all of the senior women from all the different disciplines will come together and discuss issues such as why there are more women in biology, and why that particular discipline has been successful in increasing their numbers.
One of the challenges Prof Smieja thinks she will face is trying to convince the women that this project is different from other research that have been done. “[These women] are so used to having to do so much to prove themselves. They just need to be themselves [for this project], and commit to having a relationship with others.”
This project is expected to help women in STEM across all career stages and disciplines gain advancement in their careers through peer-mentoring. Prof Smieja hopes that by creating alliances, women will feel less alone.
“I hope that this type of networking…primarily peer-mentoring, will be one of the things that we can do to make the environment less chilly, and make it empower women more to stay in academics and advance their careers.”
To hear more from Prof Smieja, watch the video below: