Of all the various schemes to encourage more young women to pursue careers in STEM fields, a new six-week online mentoring program that aims to connect young women with female mentors already established in STEM fields seems especially promising.
Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and co-sponsor of the new program, describes the project as a massive open online course (MOOC) "and a big mentor fest." She continues,
Getting more women into STEM is my passion in life, and every institution that's set up mentorship programs for young women has been successful at increasing their numbers, so I think this can make a real difference.
Prominent women working in science, technology, engineering and math have answered the horn call from all corners of academia — the California Institute of Technology, Harvard, MIT and Princeton, to name just a few — to become online mentors for young women trying to gain their foothold in a STEM career. The program, Women Sharing in Technology Online (WitsON, since we know how very fond academia is of its acronyms) will be pretty wide open, with none of the onerous burden of grades, tests, curriculum, or credit, its main objective being to make as many connections between STEM neophytes and veterans as possible. According to Dennis Berkey from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the program will prove especially helpful to young women, many of who may find it difficult to otherwise connect to a female mentor, someone who can answer, for example, questions about sexism in STEM fields:
Young women in STEM, more than young men, have a lot of questions about what kind of career they'll have, whether the rewards are based on performance or the old boys' network, whether it'll let them make a positive impact on the world, and how it will relate to their aspirations for family.
The New York Times' Tamar Lewis notes that, though women now earn more college degrees than men, they "lag behind in STEM fields — particularly computer science and engineering, where they earn less than 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees." In an effort to help hoist those numbers up, Dr. Klawe has enlisted six especially prominent STEM women as alpha mentors, a group that includes Mae C. Jemison, the first black female astronaut; Jacqueline K. Barton, the chairwoman of the chemistry department at Caltech; and Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's chief technology officer, to work with the large pool of mentors to answer questions submitted online.
At a test forum in May, over 800 questions were submitted in a day, ranging from the general, "How sexist is the program?" to the particular, "Can I work for you?" Though mentors say that they will keep their eyes peeled for matches to open positions, WitsON is really about establishing a dialogue between women who have succeeded in STEM fields and women aiming to succeed in STEM fields, with the hope that mentoring can help encourage more women to wade into what remain stubbornly male-dominated fields.
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