Why is Mentorship Critical in STEAM Fields? Pros from Google, Intel, and NASA Weigh In

Intel’s Robert O’Connor teaches WiSci Namibia students how to adjust the code on their Wall-E bot.

It can be daunting to imagine the future if you’re a girl pursuing a career in a field where there are few, if any, other women to look up to as role models and mentors.

As World Learning Inc. President and CEO Carol Jenkins noted in an op-ed for the Council on Foreign Relations, women are entering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs at the same levels as men, but there are leaks in the pipeline: women are far less likely to pursue doctoral degrees and other advanced opportunities.

But recent studies show that having female mentors — and more female peers — can turn that phenomenon around.

Creating those mentorship opportunities is one of the many goals of WiSci, the Women in Science Girls STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics) Camp. Implemented by World Learning, the camp brings together high school girls to develop their leadership potential and engage in an intensive STEAM curriculum devised and taught by professionals from WiSci partner organizations Google, Intel, and NASA. During nightly mentor hours, those professionals also advise the girls on their academic paths and careers.

At this year’s camp, hosted in Namibia, World Learning spoke with these mentors to find out why they believe mentorship helps girls stay in STEAM fields. Check out what they had to say in the following video clips and Q&As:

Jennifer Francis
Technology Development Environmental Health and Safety Engineer
Intel Corporation

Jennifer Francis shares why camps like WiSci Namibia are important.

How have your experiences been with the girls?
They are really cool. They give us energy when we are tired. It’s exciting to see them excited about learning. I also think it’s really exciting to see those who have that basic interest in chemistry or biology. It is that drive of being interested in science and learning and problem solving that really engages them in the other parts of STEAM. So that’s been really cool.

Why do you think that mentorship is important, especially for girls in STEAM fields?
Mentorship is really important because although you go to school, to actually go from sitting in a classroom getting that information to now meeting and talking to someone who does that as a part of their day-to-day life is really important. It factors into something I wholeheartedly believe in, a concept that I’ve been doing for many many years, called SEE: Science and Everyday Experiences.

By being a mentor, I represent SEE because this [camp] is an application of [the STEAM subjects] you may be interested in. And the girls may not get that. And even if they do get it from their teachers or from other professors, it’s always good to diversify and get that same experience and exposure from other people.

Onome Ofoman
Software Engineer
Google

Onome shares how mentoring helps keep women in STEAM.

What was your experience of mentorship when you were coming up in this field?
I didn’t have too much exposure to engineering in high school. I had lots of math and science classes, but I didn’t really know what engineering was. I just knew it was a prestigious career. But I had a lot of teachers who encouraged me to apply to different competitions and would help me study after school to make sure I was prepared. That really stayed with me.

I think one of the reasons that I’ve been able to get to where I am today is because of the access and opportunity I had through those competitions, as a result of these teachers spending extra time to prepare me. I can see the direct connection between mentorship and success in my life, so I try to to give back as much as possible.

What have your impressions been of the girls so far?
They are just great. I have not taught this age group before. I usually teach either younger students, middle schoolers, or developers that are already working. So I thought they would be really rowdy. But they’ve been really, really excited to be here and excited to learn.

A lot of them are focused on what they want to study in the future, what they want to do with their life, and how they can help bring change to the world. So they’re asking really interesting questions like “How did you get to Google?” or “What should I be doing to get to a university or to figure out what I want my career to be?” or “What kind of access to scholarships are there?”

I went to the U.S. on a scholarship, so I got a lot of questions about the whole application process to schools in the U.S. A lot of the girls are very future-focused, and I’m very very happy to see that.

Do you think that there is a connection between mentoring and being able to retain women in the industry?
I definitely think there is. And one of the most important things that companies do — and those that don’t should be doing — is have resource groups. At Google, we have a women engineers group. These resource groups are very useful for helping share knowledge that people who have gone through the ranks have accumulated and can share with junior engineers.

What final advice would you give girls?
What I say all the time is just don’t limit yourself. Never think that something is out of reach. Just always try. A lot of the opportunities I’ve had is because I tried. And at first it was other people telling me to try — mentors, my parents, saying, “Apply for this,” or “Go to this competition.”

And as you try things, you see that you’re good at some things [and] maybe not so good at other things. All that information is useful. It’s useful to know what you’re good at. It’s also useful to know what you’re not good. But also just trying things [is useful]. It’s a muscle so the more you do it the easier it is. So just always try, never limit yourself.

Emily Adams
Regional Science Coordination Lead for the Eastern Southern Africa Hub
NASA SERVIR Science Coordination Office

NASA’s Emily Adams joins mentor night at WiSci Namibia.

What interested you in coming to the camp?
It’s become even more obvious over the past couple of years, even six or eight months really, how women have been discriminated against in STEM fields. I mean, it’s obvious that it’s a male-dominated field, but the discrimination is a much bigger problem than I think anybody had really realized.

I didn’t necessarily face a lot of the same problems that some other women have faced, but I did have a little bit of discrimination through my master’s degree and it really empowered me to want to make the science fields better for the next generation of young women. I had so many opportunities thanks to my parents and things like that, and I think this camp is a great opportunity to expose young women to new science opportunities and empower them to pursue STEM careers if that’s what they choose to do.

What was the discrimination you faced?
It was not anything aggressive by any means. I give the benefit of the doubt that it was unconscious, but in a lot of cases I was the only woman in my lab and it was my job to clean, always. So there’s just small things like that where I was being pushed toward fulfilling a stereotype rather than being treated as an equal. It’s not necessarily a huge thing, but even something like that can be really detrimental to a woman’s career. Cleaning takes away from my studies, takes away from my research, etcetera. It can build up.

What was important to you to impart to the girls at mentor hours?
I think what’s amazing right now is we’re so connected. The world is so connected and there are so many resources available to young women online and through different projects like this. I really encourage them to seek out these opportunities and build their repertoire of experiences.

One of the big reasons why I am here today is because I took a lot of chances on experiences that maybe were a little bit outside of my comfort zone — sometimes a lot of outside of my comfort zone — but they exposed me to new skills and new things that I was so excited to keep exploring. It’s a huge deal for a lot of these girls to come all the way to Namibia to learn about STEM. It’s an experience like nothing else. And so I really encourage them to use their online platforms and communities to continue learning.

Why are mentorship opportunities important in your field?
Obviously there are very few women in STEM fields, which means we have very few people to look up to and that we could easily learn from. There are a lot of male allies that have been in my life as well, but sometimes you feel most comfortable looking up to somebody like you. I would like to continue to pass that relationship down to the next generation and encourage women to continue to pursue STEM and at least give them a positive role model to look up to throughout their career.

Robert O’Connor
IT Factory Automation Engineer
Intel Corporation

Intel’s Robert O’Connor with a WiSci Wall-E bot.

You’ve been participating in mentor nights. What kind of questions are you getting?
Before this week, we did mentoring with the counselors rather than the girls. We had them in for two sessions, we went through our projects with them in the first session and then they asked us if we could have a second one where we talk about our careers, how we started — I was a swimming teacher and a lifeguard — and how we progressed in each step along the way to where we are now and where we want to go in the future and the roadblocks [we faced]. And [they also asked for] recommendations for how they could potentially get jobs both in their own countries and abroad. So that was very interesting.

Now in week two, the girls are all very focused on their final week project. They want to win. So they’re all coming up to us and are like, “Here’s my idea,” and they’re really pushing it and want all the tweaks they can get. And then they’re like, “Now how can we present this so it comes across well to the judges?” So essentially our mentor hours for this week are focused around their camp projects and how they’re merging our work, Google’s, and NASA’s together for the final project.

What has been your overall experience at WiSci?
I just think it’s been brilliant. A lot of people in Ireland that I spoke to when I told them I was going on it said, “Oh, I never applied for it because I didn’t think I’d get it.” I’m male, so I saw this as women in science and I knew straight away that it would have to have a heavy female-weighted team just so the girls could see themselves in it.

But that didn’t turn me off it because I thought you also have to have men there so that it’s not it’s not a divide. Theresa (another Intel mentor) has years of experience, she’s a brilliant manager, so now she’s leading a team of both men and women, and I just think that comes across a bit better than a woman leading a female team. It shows that are all working together. It’s not men holding women back — maybe one day it was — but we’re all trying to drive together into the future. [These girls] can have support no matter where they are and no matter what jobs they go into.

Jackie Rajuai
Geoprogram Manager
Google

Google’s Jackie Rajuai at NUST’s Windhoek campus.

Why is it important to teach STEAM skills to girls?
I grew up in Kenya, and no one ever came to speak to me about what kind of options there are in life career-wise. My parents always said you can do anything you want to do as long as it’s engineering or science, but I didn’t have a grasp of what those things were. So when I was selecting what I was going to do in university, it was just based on what my parents said.

At that age, given how impressionable you are, sometimes you select things based on what your friends say, but if I had the opportunity to talk to people who actually work in the industry, that could have changed a whole lot of things. Luckily I ended up somewhere I really love, but it’s important to me that these girls meet people who actually work in these industries and get a sense of what opportunities are available to them in life.

Did you participate in mentor hours?
I did. That’s been interesting as well. One girl said she always had a passion for structural engineering and construction, but now that she’s met us she’s like, “Okay, I never thought this would be considered engineering as well” — because it’s not things you physically see. So it was interesting to see how options have opened up [for her]. She has a few years to think about it. And the benefit is that in the first two or three years of engineering, the basics are the same. It’s very math-heavy. So I asked her to focus on building the foundation, be comfortable with math and things around that, that’s going to help build you up in the future.

[I also spoke] to girls who really enjoyed the camp and want to be able to do this in the future but they don’t have the monetary ability. So I was talking to them about scholarships. Some girls didn’t know those things would be available to them. That’s been really cool.

What are your thoughts on how to break down the barriers for women entering STEAM fields and where this camp fits in with that?
I think a big chunk of it is funneling as many people as you possibly can into those fields. Because being one of the few women in the industry is difficult, but you find solace in groups, right? Even if you’re like five [women], you know you’re not in this by yourself. So having more women come into the field is going to change the work environment.

We know from the top to the bottom there’s lots of males in leadership, so even how these companies are run or basic things like benefits or even the terms we use are all very male-oriented. So if there’s more females in the company, people are like, “Oh, that’s something we never thought about.” But then still sometimes companies struggle because it’s like, “Even if we change all this, we still have very few women, so why are we changing this existing structure that’s been working for just 1 percent?”

Right? So the more we funnel people into the industry, the more it’s also going to change the work environment.

With initiatives like this one, do you see a difference in how they funnel people into the industry?
Definitely. At the end of the day yesterday, I was talking to some of my colleagues who happen to be from Kenya as well. We were saying it would be really good to keep tabs on these girls because it would be nice to ensure that bond carries on. We don’t want to have passed on all this knowledge and opened up their eyes and then just drop it. So just keep tabs on them if they get into a university. For example, in Google we have a university outreach team. If some of these students end up in a STEAM field, how do we get them to be interns in the company and maintain that relationship?

[We want to] just keep holding their hands because it’s tough. As I mentioned, I went to school in Kenya. In my engineering class, we were four girls out of like 35 guys. So before they even get into the field, [when they’re] studying it in school, we just have to try and keep holding their hand and telling them it’s fine, it keeps getting better. We’d like to keep that pipeline going.

Any final advice?
I think just go for your dreams, right? At the end of the day, I understand we have lots of barriers, whether it could be economic barriers or access to opportunities or things like that. I never thought going to school in Kenya that I would get hired by Google and be on the same team as people who went to Stanford and different places, but you’re on the same team and you’re working on the same product for users for the same goal. Sometimes we are our own challenge. You say like, ‘yeah, but I don’t have this, but I don’t have this.’ But just go for what you want in life. Anytime an opportunity comes up, take it because you never know. You never know where it’s going to lead, you never know who you’ll meet, so just follow your dreams. It can be hard sometimes, but at least you know at the end of life, I gave it my best. I tried.

Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics) Camp is a private public partnership (PPP) between the U.S. Department of State’s Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, UN Foundation’s Girl Up Initiative, Intel Corporation, and Google. In 2018, the camp brought approximately 100 high school girls from the African continent and the U.S. together for 13 days in Namibia to explore the STEAM fields and access mentorship opportunities and leadership training.