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Carol Muller is the founder and the executive director of MentorNet which is based in San Jose, California. Carol is also the executive director of the Dartmouth project for Teaching Engineering Problem Solving at Dartmouth College.

Using the Internet to provide mentoring for future women engineers

What exactly is MentorNet?

MentorNet is a national US programme that pairs undergraduate and graduate women studying engineering and related sciences with mentors in industry for a year-long structured mentoring relationships via e-mail. MentorNet began its work in early 1998 with initial funding from the AT&T and INTEL foundations. MentorNet represents a partnership between universities, corporations, professional societies and in the near future also government sites. The overall goal is to focus on the retention of women in their engineering studies and sciences so that more will complete their studies and graduate with degrees and enable them to make a transition to industry. It is for students potentially interested in careers in industry. It is not for students who plan to be medical doctors or who want to go on to higher education.

There are several reasons for this programme. One is that women are even more under-represented in engineering and science in the private for-profit sector of the economy. Overall in the US, they represent less than ten percent of engineers. In the private for-profit sector the percentage is even less. There is an interest on the part of industry who see MentorNet as an opportunity to be in touch with women who may end up being their employees.

Why is it that so few women work in those professions?

"Title 9", a law that mandated equal opportunity within education regardless of gender, was enacted in 1972. An equal pay act was also enacted at the same period. These laws opened up education opportunities that hadn't previously been available. There were lots of engineering schools that simply didn't admit women. The prevailing thinking at the time was that women were going to stay at home and raise kids. So there was no point in investing in their education. Further back in time, early pioneer women scientists had to marry scientists so they could work in their labs and only published under their husband's name. There are still vestiges of that attitude today as well as there not being a critical mass of role models that would make women being scientists and engineers seem normal.

Rosabeth Moss Kantor in publishing "Men and Women of the Corporation" in 1977 had a thesis about people of any kind who are extremely under-represented within an organisation and have visible characteristics linking them to that minority. When there is less than15% representation of a group, it is very difficult to sustain that representation. Between 15 and 35% there are issues that you still have to constantly work on, educating people. Once you get passed about 35% then things become much easier.

Conventions are very difficult to change. They permeate society. They are reflected in our entertainment, our education, our religious institutions... all of us, men and women, are products of our culture.

The mentoring you are doing involves a one-on-one relationship using the Internet ...

Mentoring is a strategy that is very helpful in encouraging women to stay the course and stick with engineering and science. The nature and impact depends on the individual. The advantage of a mentor is that that individual can tailor the support, assistance and information to whatever is required by the protégéé. They are getting information they didn't otherwise have. They are getting advice, encouragement and support. They have a sense that somebody cares about them. For a lot of students, both men and women, but especially women when they are so under-represented in these fields that is a good factor because they will run up against peers, well-meaning adults, sometimes parents or teachers who will question why they want to study such a subject.

Why chose to use the Internet in this work?

There are several different reasons. The busyness of people's lives means that it is difficult for professionals to take the time needed to mentor. Furthermore, often the best matches we can make between mentors and students involve people in disparate locations. So the Internet lends itself really well to that. For those working in science and engineering, email is very commonplace, accessible and easy to use. The asynchronous nature of email means that students and mentors can communicate despite very different schedules without intruding on one another. There are other qualities to email that assist in mentoring. These include the fact that thoughtful, deliberate communication is much easier because time can be taken to edit a message and have it say just what is wanted. This also makes it more efficient.

Is this work also seen as developing writing skills...?

On the web site there is some advice about using electronic communication including re-reading what has been written to be sure it has the tone intended. Email is a very flat form of communication. I can't see if you are smiling or frowning or whatever. One of our mentors wrote that the form of communication used on MentorNet made her work harder on being clear about what she intended to say. Taking part in mentoring forces you to be more precise. Maybe it will help people's writing.

What is the content of mentoring?

Really effective mentoring goes way beyond giving people the basic information they may not have. Instead it involves thinking about all the unarticulated, tacit kinds of knowledge that go into making a successful professional. There are aspects of relationships and doing business that men pick up from one another that are maybe not so obvious to women because they are left out of the "locker-room" and the "going-out-for-a-beer" networks...

Is it not possible that, rather than adopting the model of men, women would do things better developing their own model?

First you have to start getting in the door and developing a critical mass, then you can start to talk about the things that everyone takes for granted. Some of the things that make less sense, archaic leftovers from past practices, may be able to be jettisoned once people can recognise them.

How do you sustain a project like MentorNet?

Our initial strategy for the first three to four years was to get large start-up grants. We were successful in doing that. At the same time we recognised that while lots of organisations are maybe willing to provide start-up grants to get something going, they don't at all intend to keep them going past the first couple of years. Our current strategy is to develop a membership programme in which industry, individual corporations, professional societies, universities and some other employer site all contribute at a relatively modest level Ð that is 5000$ a year for corporations, less for universities. We are currently implementing this process. If we meet our goals we should have the funds to sustain the programme.

How do you approach evaluation of the project?

There are several different levels. We use an external evaluator because that allows a more objective approach. We're focused on both formative and summative evaluation. It is on the former that we have concentrated for the moment. There are several issues related to outcomes when it comes to summative evaluation. It is fine if you are satisfied with the perceived satisfaction of the participants. That is helpful information, but it is not the complete picture. We also want to look at their behaviour when they graduate. Looking at objective data about what they go on to do, we often have a lot of years of lag time because many of our students are first year undergraduates who may go on to graduate school ...

Carol Muller, San Jose, California.
Interview by Alan McCluskey

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Created: July 2nd, 1999 - Last up-dated: July 2nd, 1999