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Online mentoring program started for women in science, engineering

A new online mentoring service for women college students in engineering and science is getting started this fall, following a successful pilot program last spring that involved a number of Stanford students.

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Women make up 46 percent of the U.S. workforce, but they continue to lag behind men in the scientific community. The disparity is particularly great in engineering, with women accounting for less than 9 percent of all U.S. engineers.

"Women still face gender-specific obstacles when studying and preparing for careers in engineering and other sciences. There is solid evidence that mentoring can help address this disparity," says Carol Muller, executive director of the program, which is called MentorNet. "Through e-mail and other emerging electronic technologies, MentorNet can reach more women than would be possible with traditional mentoring."

The group has set itself an ambitious goal of linking 5,000 female students with female and male mentors over the next five years. The biggest obstacle that the group faces is finding qualified mentors: industry engineers and scientists who are willing to devote some of their time to advising and encouraging young women who are pursuing technical careers at top universities around the country. All the volunteers need is access to the Internet and willingness to provide education and career advice to the students.

So far MentorNet organizers have found that there are plenty of students who want to participate in the program, but there is a shortage of mentors. They are mounting a publicity campaign in hopes of enlisting more industry scientists and engineers.

This spring, MentorNet conducted a pilot study using startup capital provided by the AT&T and Intel foundations. It connected 204 female students studying at 15 U.S. colleges and universities with mentors working for such industry giants as AT&T, Intel, DuPont, IBM, Merck, Motorola, Oracle and Microsoft. Thirty-one Stanford students participated in the pilot study with the assistance of Susan Clement, assistant dean of graduate student affairs in the School of Engineering

The MentorNet staff, which is headquartered in the College of Engineering at San Jose State University, provided web-based training materials, newsletters and support when a mentor needed advice or a mentor/student match experienced difficulties. Online discussion groups for students and mentors will be added this fall.

Mentors and students typically discussed a wide range of subjects, such as how college choices affect professional opportunities, how professional and personal demands can be balanced, and whether women face additional pressures in the workplace.

"We've talked about making choices, not getting overwhelmed with your work load, the pros and cons of a master's or Ph.D. in the job market," said Vasantha Erragunta, an online mentor and a senior design engineer with Intel Corp. "It would have helped me a great deal to have a mentor when I was in school. At times I felt very isolated, particularly since I attended a university in a rural community."

Undergraduates accounted for about 75 percent of the students participating in MentorNet's initial semester. "Undergraduates are an important audience for MentorNet," Muller said. "The first and second years are a particularly critical time when female students majoring in engineering or other sciences are most likely to leave their chosen fields of study or drop out."

To apply, visit MentorNet's web site:, or contact MentorNet Executive Director Carol Muller at or (408) 924-4070.

MentorNet is provided through the Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network.


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