The Importance of Female Mentors

June 17, 2009

Common among the former fellows I’ve interviewed is that having a mentor and being a mentor play important roles in these women’s lives. This message was reiterated in the speech given by Anucha Browne Sanders during the AAUW Women of Distinction Awards Ceremony at the recent National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. Sanders said, “Stand up for other women around you. Do it through mentoring and leadership. You can start where you are, no matter how little you think you have to offer, you can make a difference.”

According to a new study sponsored by the National Science Foundation, mentors play a pivotal role in the success of women pursuing careers in academia in math and science. The study found that female tenure-track and tenured faculty were more likely to have mentors than male faculty. Fifty-seven percent of females reported having mentors, whereas only 49 percent of males reported having one.

Further findings concluded that female assistant professors who had mentors had a higher probability of receiving grants than those who didn’t have a mentor. Among the natural science and engineering professions studied, women with mentors had a 93 percent chance of receiving grants and those without mentors had only a 68 percent chance. In sharp contrast, men with mentors had an 86 percent chance of receiving grant funding, and men without mentors had an 83 percent chance.

Based on these results, the research recommendations included a call to initiate mentor programs for all newly hired faculty, especially at the assistant professor level. It stated, “The mentoring of female faculty had a striking impact on their ability to secure grant funding. Institutional mentoring programs could help ensure that female faculty acquire grant funding which in turn should have a positive effect on their promotion rates.”

Another report about the impact of female role models detailed the results of a study conducted by two University of California, Davis, economists and an Air Force Academy colleague about the impact of female instructors on female achievement. Ray Fisman reported in Slate that, “When a female instructor was put at the front of the classroom, nearly two-thirds of the grade point gender gap evaporated.” One conclusion made by the researchers was that in order to enlist and retain talented women in the sciences, it is important to have women professors in the classroom.

In my work with the fellowships and grants department at AAUW, I see the importance of mentoring almost on a daily basis. AAUW supports many mentoring programs through its Community Action Grants, which target young women. To read stories of how AAUW fellow and grantee alumnae are taking these research findings to heart, visit the AAUW blog and read about Angela Lindner and Jessica Strate Beach , Wendy Crone or Project GEMS.

Co-written by Kelley Gallagher.

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