The latest Soapbox Science mini-series focuses on the role of mentors in science. Tying in with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, where almost 600 young scientists have the opportunity to meet each other and 25 Nobel laureates, we’ll be looking at the importance of supportive relationships and role models. We’ll hear from a mix of mentors, mentees and projects set up to support scientists and we aim to explore not just the positive examples of good mentoring but what can happen when these key relationships are absent or break down. For more discussions around this year’s Lindau meeting, check out the Lindau Nobel Community site.
Dr. Meghan Groome is the Director of K12 Science Education and Science & the City at the New York Academy of Sciences. Dr. Groome joined the Academy in July of 2010 after spending three years as a special projects consultant to the American Museum of Natural History. Previous, Dr. Groome was a Senior Policy Analyst with the National Governors Association and co-authored Building a STEM Agenda, a framework for states and large organizations to improve their science education pipelines from birth through graduate school. Dr. Groome completed her PhD at Teachers College Columbia University in Science Education with a focus on urban science education. During graduate school, Dr. Groome co-founded uPublic, an education consulting company focused on local, national, and international education reforms. Dr. Groome graduated from The Colorado College in 2000 with a major in biology and theater and is a certified science teacher with experience teaching PreK through Graduate school.
In December 2011, the New York Academy of Sciences launched the Women in Science Initiative to honor the anniversary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize. Of the 549 times the prize has been awarded, it has been given to only 43 women, 15 of them in the field of science.[i] “If the Nobel Prize is the ultimate measure of success and women are still in the vast minority of Laureates, then how are women stacking up versus men while en route to the zenith of their careers?”
In the past three decades, there has been significant progress in the representation of women in science.[ii],[iii] Between 1966 and 1995, the proportion of science and engineering bachelor degrees awarded to women almost doubled, rising from 25% to 47%, while the proportion of women receiving PhDs in various disciplines steadily increased as well. For instance, in the 1960s 16% of biology PhDs went to women and by the 1990s this number reached 40%. In other scientific disciplines such as chemistry, geosciences, and engineering a similar trend has been observed. In contrast, women are less than half as likely to be employed in science and engineering jobs and earn approximately 20% less compared with men in similar positions.[iv]
There is significant research examining why girls and women do not persist in science, including lack of early preparation and insufficient course preparation in K12 as compared to boys, lack of parental support for STEM careers, concern for work/life balance (i.e. conflict between a career in STEM and raising a family), lack of role models and same-sex mentors,[v] practices of the faculty which create a “chilly” learning environment, and pervasive gender discrimination at all educational levels.[vi]
While degree and employment trends for women are positive, success in formal schooling is not translating to faculty ranks or the workplace. Mentoring – which I like to define as outsiders becoming insiders – is shown to be a key strategy for advancing girls and women in science. Mentoring is not just making a match between an outsider and an insider; it is helping the mentors be reactive to the needs of the mentees and actively induct an individual into the culture of science.
I think the reactive piece is easy – mentors can foreshadow expected bumps along the road and help mentees navigate them when they inevitably pop up. I know few young women who haven’t encountered one of the forces known to create a chilly learning environment for school girls – from the blatantly sexist “girls can’t do math” to the more subtle habit of teachers who let boys tinker and expect girls to sit quietly – girls who persist in science often do so because they have a support structure propping them up. At our robotics scrimmage in March, I noticed how our Girl Scout robotics team was structured to have the most expert roboticists help the least expert roboticists – it was expected that one of the rock stars of the team would welcome the newbie by showing them the ropes. When we introduced our scientists to the team, the novice/expert dynamic flipped but the expectation of mentoring never waivered. Mentoring and being mentored is a key part of the culture of Girl Scouts and one that has served alumnae of that organization very well.
In my mind, the active piece of the mentoring relationship is much more difficult. It is relatively easy to “show someone the ropes” and give advice in a crisis as mentoring often occurs via a one-on-one conversation. At some point, however, the mentor needs to take off the training wheels and have their mentee perform science in public. Whether giving a conference proposal or having a role in a department meeting, a good mentor should begin to publically endorse the work of their mentee. Like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike, you don’t want anyone to get hurt, but at some point the training wheels have to come off and all you can do is hope the crash isn’t too painful.
I think my own experience of being mentored is illustrative of this. My mentor began by taking me to as many meetings as possible often positioning me as a note taker. After, she’d dissect the meeting, taking it apart like a play-by-play sports announcer. As I demonstrated a better understanding of the content and the culture, she’d find ways for me to contribute, prepping me beforehand by telling me how I could contribute to the conversation. She continued to dissect the meetings and provide constructive feedback on my participation; it was brutal but effective.
Unlike the Girl Scouts, we don’t teach our scientists how to be mentors. It’s vital that organizations like the Academy provide that training but it’s also essential that those of us in our mid-careers reach out and vouch for the youngsters in the grad student and postdocs ranks. “In doing so, we will make the young scientist’s transition from student to professional less painful, which will encourage them to stay in the field and ultimately help contribute to more gender equity in science.”
[ii] Prochaska, J. M., Mauriello, L. M., Sherman, K. J., Harlow, L., Silver, B. & Trubatch, J. (2006). Assessing readiness for advancing women scientists using the transtheoretical model. Sex Roles 54, 869-80.
[iii] Milem, J.F. (in press). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. In M. Chang, D. Witt, J. Jones, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in higher education. Stanford,CA: Stanford Education.
[iv] Prochaska, J. M., Mauriello, L. M., Sherman, K. J., Harlow, L., Silver, B. & Trubatch, J. (2006). Assessing readiness for advancing women scientists using the transtheoretical model. Sex Roles 54, 869-80.
[v] Sax, L. J. (2001). Undergraduate science majors: Gender differences in who goes to graduate school. The Review of Higher Education 24(2), 153-172. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/
[vi] Hanson, S.L. 1997. Lost Talent: Women in the Sciences.Philadelphia,PA:TempleUniversity Press.