16 Becoming AWARES: Mentoring Undergraduate Women in Engineering and Sciences
Shirley L. Yu; Arianna Black; and Gönül Kaletunç
The Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences (AWARES) mentorship program was designed to support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors as they transition from their undergraduate degree programs to the workforce. The AWARES program was structured around topics relevant to women in STEM careers, including but not limited to interviewing and job offer negotiation, career development, navigating social dynamics in the workplace, and establishing and growing a professional network. Based in tenets of social cognitive theory, AWARES aims to use expert and group mentorship to increase young women’s self-efficacy for career-related soft skills that are associated with retention in STEM professions. We examined quantitative and qualitative outcomes for both mentors and mentees and found that women graduate the program with high levels of self-efficacy and that mentors also feel highly efficacious in their mentorship roles. In addition to mentee and mentor outcomes, quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the program was conducted so that participant feedback can be considered for future iterations of AWARES. Finally, program design, sustainability, and lessons learned are also discussed.
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We gratefully acknowledge grant support for the AWARES program from the Engineering Information Foundation. AWARES was also made possible by funding from the following entities at The Ohio State University: The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the College of Engineering, and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Finally, we thank all the AWARES mentors, learning community advisors, and mentees.
Purpose and Objectives of the AWARES Program
In engineering, gender disparity is a long-standing issue (Fouad et al., 2011). Only 23% of students graduating with an undergraduate engineering degree in 2020 were women (American Society for Engineering Education, 2021). Of these women, a critical mass leaves engineering careers, resulting in women comprising only 16% of the field’s workforce (National Science Foundation, 2021). The absence of supportive networks and lack of guidance by mentors have been found to negatively impact job satisfaction and one’s career trajectory (Fouad et al., 2012). Indeed, many women engineers lack the support of a mentor. Women who did have a mentor remained working in the engineering field and reported higher levels of career satisfaction and less inclination to leave than those without a mentor. Mentorship and networking are essential elements for women engineers to have successful careers. This is especially true for young women in male-dominated academic and professional fields. A good starting point for discovering the value of mentoring and networking and developing career management skills is at the undergraduate level. The Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences (AWARES) program empowers women graduating from engineering and science majors with professional skills necessary for a smooth transition from college/university to the workplace and a successful career. The AWARES program has three primary goals:
- Prepare women with the necessary career management skills to succeed and advance in engineering and science fields.
- Build the self-efficacy and confidence of women engineers and scientists to encourage perseverance in the workforce.
- Provide opportunities for women to discover the value of mentorship and networking.
Mentoring Context and Program Development
AWARES was created by Dr. Gönül Kaletunç, professor of food engineering. She attended the Executive Leadership in Academic Technology, Engineering and Science (ELATES) program at Drexel University, a national leadership development program for women faculty committed to increasing the number of women in STEM. Participants in ELATES create an institutional action project, and Dr. Kaletunç developed the AWARES program accordingly. She focused on creating a program uniquely structured to be long enough to establish a relationship between mentor-mentee dyads, to include a curriculum of topics highly relevant to women’s navigation of professional careers, and to provide opportunities for mentees to be part of group mentoring by sharing the knowledge learned from mentors with their peers. Dr. Kaletunç started the program as a pilot with 13 mentor-mentee dyads in 2016 and, as of 2022, has served nearly 200 women students.
The AWARES program features several elements that distinguish it from traditional mentoring programs. Women students are paired with professional women engineers working in the industry for one-on-one mentoring. The program is designed around a structured curriculum, including peer discussions in larger groups. The program also entails a two-semester commitment to provide time for developing relationships. Discussion topics focus on developing career management skills that are not included in engineering curricula (Kaletunç, 2017; Kaletunç & Yu, 2018).
Infrastructure and Institutional Support
AWARES is a cocurricular program offered through the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering (FABE) at The Ohio State University (OSU). It is open to women majoring in STEM disciplines at OSU. With the use of video conferencing tools, students at other universities and mentors working in states other than Ohio have also participated.
The curriculum is designed to focus on career management skills. Mentor-mentee pairs discuss specific topics of curriculum during biweekly meetings. In intervening weeks, groups of mentees meet for facilitated peer discussions in a learning community (LC). Mentees share their reflections from their conversations with their mentors and are exposed to more viewpoints. The LCs are a form of group mentoring, and they simulate professional networks and aid mentees in recognizing the value of networks and the opportunities they may bring.
Throughout the program, prior to mentor-mentee meetings, participants receive resources and talking points to guide their conversation about the curriculum topic. The curriculum includes career goal identification, interview skills, job offer selection and negotiation, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, diversity, imposter syndrome, implicit bias, microaggressions, career management and advancement, and leadership.
The program lasts 25 weeks over the fall and spring semesters. Each topic in the curriculum is discussed over 2 weeks, first within the mentor-mentee meetings and then within the LC meeting. This format is intended to expand knowledge about the topic and to build confidence in the mentees.
At the end of the program, mentees and their mentors attend a graduation ceremony. This ceremony is either held on campus in the evening and includes a shared meal, or it occurs online due to the participation of some mentees and mentors from other states. During the ceremony, the director and university administrators greet and provide congratulatory remarks. Next, a keynote speaker addresses the students with an educational and inspirational talk, typically with a message focused on encouraging women to persist in their engineering careers. The keynote speakers have included successful women engineers, social scientists, and university administrators. The ceremony ends with recognition and celebration of mentees with certificates of achievement and of mentors with certificates of appreciation.
To support its activities, the program has received internal and external funding. Financial support has been provided by the department, college, and university. Specifically, funding sources have included the Department of FABE, the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the OSU. Program administrators also sought and were awarded external grant funding from the Engineering Information Foundation. Finally, funding is also sustained through a gift account, where donors and other participating universities can contribute.
Operational Definition of Mentoring
AWARES is a formal, structured mentorship program that includes expert and group mentorship components. Stemming from social cognitive theory, both expert and group mentorship provide opportunities for observational/vicarious learning through models and through social persuasion, which are instrumental for supporting participants’ ability beliefs; in particular, AWARES targets an individual’s self-efficacy or one’s belief in her ability to execute goal-directed behaviors (Bandura, 1977; Schunk & Mullen, 2013; Zeldin & Pajares, 2000; Zimmerman, 2000).
In AWARES, expert mentorship is defined as a hierarchical, developmental relationship whereby a mentor from the engineering industry provides career-related psychosocial/socioemotional guidance to the mentee to guide them in their decision-making and to foster their professional success (e.g., Downing et al., 2005; Kram, 1983). The group mentorship component gives mentees opportunities to share reflections from conversations with mentors and to discuss their experiences, leading to expansion and strengthening of knowledge on curriculum topics. There is no expert–novice hierarchy between peers, except for any naturally occurring grade-level differences. Therefore, group mentorship is classified as a developmental relationship whereby mentees can discuss their mentorship experiences and exchange career-related psychosocial/socioemotional advice with a group of their peers in the program. By providing mentees with competent and relevant models, their self-efficacy beliefs are expected to increase (Bandura, 1977) over the 25-week-long program (e.g., Kaletunç & Yu, 2018).
Recruitment, Selection, and Matching Strategies
Participant recruitment begins each year during the spring semester through announcements emailed by academic advisors in the College of Engineering. Advertisements are also distributed through university news channels. In some cases, graduates of the program volunteer to recruit mentees in subsequent years. The AWARES website (https://awares.osu.edu/) includes the application, which contains several questions to determine eligibility. The application process continues through summer and the beginning of the fall semester. Once applicants’ commitments are confirmed, mentor recruitment efforts start. The program has built a mentor database of approximately 150 women engineers and scientists practicing in the industry. Mentors are identified and contacted about their willingness to participate in the upcoming program year, with mentor-mentee pairs formed primarily on matching majors of study.
Training and Educational Opportunities
Training and educational opportunities exist for both mentors and mentees. Mentors meet with the program director and other mentors prior to the start of the program. The program director sends emails biweekly to the mentors with announcements and notes on the topic. The mentor-mentee conversations are followed by further discussion on the curriculum topics in the LC meetings. This helps mentors know that they are not expected to have all the answers on the topic but instead to provide insight from their perspective and experience.
Both mentors and mentees receive resource materials on the curriculum topics, including articles, links to websites, case studies, and self-guided career modules. During the weekly mentor-mentee meetings, the mentees receive one-on-one mentoring. They learn about the week’s topic and their mentor’s experience and perspectives, and they ask questions and discuss issues. The following week, they share what they learned with their peers, and additional engagement with the topic takes place through facilitated discussion by LC advisors and the program director. Mentees share the reflections from their conversations with mentors in the group so that all mentees can indirectly learn from other mentors.
The curriculum is highly structured around biweekly topics, with specific learning objectives. For example, for the topic of conflict resolution and emotional intelligence, the learning objectives include the following: Mentees will be able to (a) name reasons for conflict in the workplace, (b) apply collaborative negotiation principles to resolve conflict, and (c) engage in self-awareness, control, and expression of one’s own emotions; and understand and empathize with others’ emotions to manage relationships. An overarching learning objective for the program is for mentees to embrace the value of having a mentor and a network so that they will plan to identify and request a mentor and build a network once they are in their careers.
Strategies to Monitor and Support Relationships
Several strategies are in place to monitor and support relationships. The schedule and organization of the program provides a structure that supports the need for mentors and mentees to meet biweekly. In alternating weeks, the LC meetings provide mentees a space to share and reflect on their conversations with their mentors. All mentees are encouraged to actively participate in the LC group conversations that are facilitated by an LC advisor. LC advisors commented that as the mentees’ comfort level in the group and confidence in their knowledge increased, their participation in group conversation naturally improved.
Formative and Summative Evaluation
The evaluation and assessment of AWARES is comprehensive. Quantitative and qualitative data are collected at three timepoints (baseline, mid-program, and end of program) to assess self-efficacy outcomes and changes. Mentors and mentees complete online surveys assessing self-efficacy for the career skills addressed in the curriculum, as well as program perceptions. For example, to assess self-efficacy for career goals, participants are asked a series of questions about their confidence pertaining to aspects of goal-setting, including being able to set career goals for the next 5 years, persisting toward their goals, being involved in meaningful work, and understanding the employment outlook and salary trends in their field. Survey findings consistently demonstrate that mentees experience growth in their self-efficacy over the course of the AWARES program (Table 16.1), and that they have high levels of self-efficacy at the end of the program and prior to the workplace transition.
A unique aspect of AWARES is the evaluation of mentors’ self-efficacy for their role. Similar to the mentees, the mentors are asked to rate their confidence in the various topics the AWARES curriculum addresses, but rather than their own confidence in those areas, they respond based on how confident they feel supporting their mentees. Importantly, all mentors began and ended the 2019–2020 AWARES program with high self-efficacy (i.e., means above 4.00 on a 5.00 scale), with no statistically significant changes across the year. This is crucial, as the perceived competence of a social model is a major factor in whether the model is effective for the learner (e.g., Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). Thus, evaluating mentors’ self-perceptions is a recommended aspect of mentorship programs.
Finally, qualitative evaluation of open-ended responses using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) yields more nuance about which aspects of the program are effective and why. Furthermore, focus groups are conducted with mentors for formative evaluation halfway through the program. This qualitative information adds depth to quantitative responses and helps guide program improvement (Table 16.2). For instance, one qualitative finding that offers a rich opportunity for future exploration is that mentors have often reported what skills they gain by participating in the AWARES program. Further exploration of how mentors perceive their experiences can provide useful insights for the mentorship literature. Overall, the evaluation of AWARES also contributes to its sustainability and continued effectiveness by identifying participants’ perceptions, needs, and outcomes.
Sustaining the Mentoring Program
Factors influencing the sustainability of AWARES include financial support, a regenerative mentor pool, technology use, long-term program goals, and evaluation of the program. First, funding helps support participants’ overall experience by providing meals during group meetings, honoraria for guest speakers, and a graduation ceremony. Second, the mentor pool has grown over time, with many previous student mentees becoming mentors after graduation, and mentors aiding in recruitment. In 2019–2020, 90% of outgoing mentees expressed interest in becoming a mentor in the future, with 73% interested in mentoring for AWARES specifically. Similarly, 57% of mentors were previous AWARES mentors, and 93% indicated an interest in continuing in the future. This mentorship network is supported and promoted through its website and social media channels, encouraging connection between participants and program personnel. Technology (e.g., video conferencing) also sustains and allows expansion of the program to other universities and mentors beyond the local area, including mentors from nine states outside Ohio. Finally, program goals also contribute to its sustainability: One prominent goal is to support graduates by giving them the skills to identify their own mentors in the workplace. Accordingly, mentorship extends beyond the program itself. In addition, the program is designed to sustain mentorship in a cyclical fashion, through the goal that mentees will not only have mentors in their careers but also will become mentors in the future.
Outcomes, Lessons Learned, and Future Directions
As of 2022, AWARES is in its seventh year and has impacted the lives of nearly 200 undergraduate women pursuing engineering and science degrees and careers. Several patterns of outcomes have emerged, lessons have been learned, and directions for future research have been identified.
Evaluation consistently demonstrates that mentees complete the program with high self-efficacy for significant career-related nontechnical skills. Having high self-efficacy at a time of transition may be necessary for retention (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017) and is thus a crucial program outcome. Mentees also strongly believe that their participation in AWARES will positively impact their careers. Similarly, mentors report high self-efficacy for the mentorship role, a strong belief in the importance of the program, and value for participation as mentors.
Furthermore, the program length allows meaningful relationships to develop between mentees and mentors. Dyads often continue to communicate even after mentees complete the program and begin their careers.
Sustaining the mentorship program financially has required creativity and the utilization of multiple resources. AWARES has been sponsored by two colleges within the university, the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and a foundation grant. Seeking and utilizing multiple sources of funding has helped support the program over many years.
Furthermore, mentors serve as a critical component of AWARES, and their belief in the necessity of the program is one powerful facet of its growth and success. Mentors also routinely report that the program structure and provision of content/topic resources are part of its appeal for them. In return, they have spread their testimonies about AWARES to other women in STEM careers, growing the mentor pool considerably.
Future directions regarding program evaluation may focus on several elements. Longitudinal follow-up with mentees can provide information on actual career satisfaction and retention. Further, additional research examining the mentors’ program participation as well as longitudinal follow-up may add a unique perspective on the program’s value. Specifically, mentors’ statements that the program would have positive impacts on their own careers suggest an opportunity for understanding what mentors gain from their participation in the program. Finally, the inclusion of a comparison group of undergraduate women who do not participate in the program can provide a stronger basis for causal claims.
In conclusion, the AWARES program provides a unique opportunity for women engineering and science undergraduates to be mentored by women working in the industry on career management skills and networking. The documented outcomes to date for both mentors and mentees indicate that the program is a successful approach to preparing future women engineers for their careers, which in turn can work toward addressing gender disparities in the field.
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Mentee Self-Efficacy Growth (2019–2020)
N = 30
N = 38
N = 27
|Curriculum topic||M||SD||𝛼||M||SD||𝛼||M||SD||𝛼||I have confidence that I can…|
|Career goals||3.66||0.68||.70||4.18||0.46||.53||4.39||0.69||.88||…Make a plan of my career goals for the next five years|
|Skill development||3.97||0.73||.72||4.33||0.61||.75||—||—||—||…Identify transferable skills gained outside of the classroom|
|Job search||3.47||0.74||.76||3.95||0.73||.83||4.25||0.71||.76||…Make the most of a career fair|
|Interview skills||2.91||0.80||.87||3.82||0.75||.90||4.35||0.59||.88||…Successfully negotiate my future job salary and benefits|
|Workplace transition||3.83||0.58||.86||4.23||0.52||.83||4.54||0.45||.87||…Work well within the culture of my workplace|
|Diversity||3.89||0.64||.77||4.30||0.64||.91||4.57||0.44||.76||…Guard against implicit bias affecting my decision-making|
|Career advancement||3.32||0.74||.82||4.10||0.68||.86||4.44||0.54||.90||…Recognize the opportunities for advancement in my career|
|Career management||3.41||0.65||.70||3.96||0.71||.82||4.33||0.61||.89||…Effectively deal with microaggression in the workplace|
|Overall M & SD||3.49||0.50||n/a||4.08||0.52||n/a||4.41||0.47||n/a|
Notes. — indicates missing datapoint. M = mean. SD = standard deviation. 𝛼 = Cronbach alpha. n/a = not applicable.
Sample Qualitative Survey Items and Selected Responses from Mentors and Mentees
|How is this program different from other mentoring programs or outreach opportunities with which you have been involved?||
Mentor: I have been involved with both formal and informal mentoring within my company for many years. What I appreciate about this program is the topics for discussion offered as conversation starters. This helps focus in for each meeting! Much appreciated! Additionally, the specific time frame is appreciated . . . a clear start and end date are good!
Mentee: I think that it is more structured in a way to be educational and kind of like working through a program for like professional development. I think it also was so great in building up confidence and helping to establish a community of resources for times when we struggle with how male-dominated our fields are.
|Please provide any additional comments or testimonials about the program||
Mentor: I always enjoy getting to know my mentee, giving her tools & advice to use as she works on developing her desired career path. I am hopeful that I have been a positive influence/role model for my mentee and in some way I have helped set her up to be successful in the workplace.
Mentee: AWARES gave me the confidence to keep working towards my engineering degree and the drive to know it is worth it.