According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1970 women made up only eight percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers. In the last decade, this number has risen to about 27 percent. While there has been progress in increasing the number of women in STEM positions, there’s still space to grow. On March 16, the college held a Women’s History Month panel discussion to address the value of mentorship in supporting women in STEM careers. The panel, titled “Eberly Women Talk Mentorship,” was hosted by Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science.
Attendees had the opportunity to hear from four Penn State women at varying stages of their career and with different perspectives. Barbara Dalton is vice president, worldwide business development (WWBD), and senior managing partner of Pfizer Ventures. Denise Okafor is an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of chemistry at Penn State. Jane Charlton is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. Emily Howerton is a graduate student in biology.
The panel reflected on the value that mentoring brought them in their early careers and why they choose to be mentors now. All four of these women noted that the most important role of a mentor is instilling confidence.
“Providing confidence was a very important role for mentors in my life,” said Okafor. “They were telling me that I can complete a Ph.D. and that I can pursue an R1 research position, but also helping me figure out the best way to pursue [it]. If someone had not told me that I could do it, I might have believed that I couldn’t.”
As a mentor now, Okafor says she focuses on supporting her mentees in ways that she appreciated others did for her. She also emphasized the importance of mentors anticipating the needs of their mentees.
On this same topic, Charlton spoke of the value of emotionally supporting mentees, especially those who may be experiencing imposter syndrome. She wants her students to know that as they continue their studies, it’s normal to feel as if they don’t fully understand their subject of study even after years of research. Mentees shouldn’t feel as though their advisors and mentors are waiting for them to catch up in grasping concepts, but that they’re working together as a team.
Dalton also stressed that teams can include peers and others that vouch for one another. Creating a community of women who support one another can also happen from a distance. She explained the benefit of having advocates, especially in large organizations where individuals need to demonstrate their skills and capabilities.
“If you’re in a meeting with a group and someone gives a really good presentation or answer, let them know you thought so and then help them by connecting them with others,” she said. “That may be mentorship from afar where you don’t personally know them, but I think having active advocates is extremely important.”
This past year and a half has given new meaning to mentoring from a distance, as both mentors and mentees have worked to overcome traditional obstacles as well as new ones.
Howerton shared that during the pandemic, she most valued her mentor’s role in helping her prioritize not just her research but also her physical and mental health as well as her personal life.
“I think we've all struggled with separating those things, and so just having someone to remind me that I'm important as a person, as an aside from my science, has helped me get through the time,” she said.
To read more of the panelists' thoughts on the topic of mentoring, visit the Women’s History Month Panel Discussion site.