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Will Mentorship Bring More Diversity to STEM Fields?

March 20, 2014
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Will Mentorship Bring More Diversity to STEM Fields?
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LinkedIn has partnered with MentorNet to connect STEM students with much-needed advisors.

We’ve all heard the statistics. Women, by and large, are disproportionately underrepresented in STEM fields. According to recent research from employment website LinkedIn, women make up just 30 percent of the entire workforce in the tech industry. The statistics in engineering are even worse. Only 15 percent of jobs in this high-paying, highly-competitive field are held by women. It’s a familiar story with no simple solutions.

As Fast Company’s Chris Gayomali points out, “The gender imbalance in STEM fields is a deeply rooted structural problem, from the actual hiring process to the education system responsible for churning out the future’s workforce.” But there are ways to ease the imbalance. And one strategy, experts claim, is through mentorship.

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Last week, MentorNet, an organization that has paired more than 32,000 STEM students with mentors in the field over the past 15 years, announced that it was partnering with LinkedIn in order to expand its reach by utilizing their expansive professional social media platform to connect students — called protégés — with STEM professionals. This partnership allows MentorNet to leverage LinkedIn’s network of more than 277 million professional to find mentors who would be interested in the program. (Additionally, LinkedIn is providing MentorNet with a grant that will allow the organization to update its own technology platform to reach even more people.) Currently, Meg Garlinghouse, Head of LinkedIn Good, wrote in a blog post that the protégés greatly outnumber the mentors.

“LinkedIn is this rich profile for education, employment, and where people are in the world,” Mary Fernandez, MentorNet CEO, told Fast Company. “We can combine that with the data for our program, and once you understand the challenges people are facing, once you have this really rich profile, you can begin to match mentors and protégés algorithmically.”

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But good news is often offset with bad. Research shows that while the number of women in STEM degree programs is increasing — the National Science Board’s recent report found that the number is up 21 percent since 1993 —  the number of degree-holders in these areas has actually declined over the past 30 years, from 23 percent in 1984 to fewer than 15 percent today. For its part, MentorNet’s mission of mentorship has proven to work: 92 percent of the program’s protégés have gone on to graduate, according to Fast Company.

Fernandez herself experienced the positive effects of mentorship when she was hired at AT&T Bell Labs while in graduate school at Princeton University. For her, the experience was invaluable. She even attributes it to helping her earn her Ph.D. Now, her mission is to help other young women find the support they need to be successful, which in turn can positively impact the nation’s economy.

“There’s an economic imperative for more diversity,” she said, noting that hiring managers couldn’t ignore a talent pool full of smart, educated women. “Women have to be part of the story. Latinos have to be part of the story. First-generation college attendees have to be part of the story.” And LinkedIn and MentorNet is rewriting it now.

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