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Women in STEM: Closing the Gender Gap Through Effective Mentorship Programs

SWE's recent case study underscores the critical role of female STEM mentorship programs. Mentorship programs function as gateways to professional networks and provide essential support resources for women in STEM.
Women in STEM: Closing the Gender Gap Through Effective Mentorship Programs

Women remain vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Recent statistics paint a concerning picture: globally, only 35% of STEM students are female, and this number drops to a mere 28% for doctoral students. Addressing this imbalance and closing the gender gap in STEM participation and success have become a global priority.

In 2022, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) hosted research roundtable discussions with individuals from Austria, Germany, and the United States to gather insights and recommendations to address the gender gap in STEM education and the workforce. These roundtables highlighted the significant impact effective mentorship programs have in supporting women in STEM — both on a global international scale and as an emerging powerful tool for empowerment and support.

Recognizing the crucial role of female STEM mentorship programs, SWE conducted a qualitative study involving interviews with international participants in identified female mentoring programs at universities in Austria and Germany. The selected programs were aimed at retaining women in STEM graduate studies and faculty.

The research objective focused on understanding what factors make a university STEM mentorship program truly impactful for women and examined “What are the key factors that contribute to the effectiveness of university STEM mentorship programs in promoting the advancement and success of women in engineering and technology fields within the specific contexts of Austria and Germany?”

Findings from SWE’s case study report shed light on female mentorship program effectiveness, program design, best practices, and lessons learned, including:

  1. Core elements of impactful programs, such as program characteristics that cultivate a supportive and empowering environment for women in STEM
  2. Best practices, including successful strategies and approaches currently implemented in existing programs
  3. Lessons learned that highlight mentor experiences with female STEM mentorship programs, challenges, and other valuable insights for program improvements
  4. Evidence-based recommendations that illustrate research findings and, provides direct mentor- specific recommendations for strengthening STEM mentorship programs globally.

Table 1 provides an overview of the programs included in this study.

Table 1: Program Highlights

ProgramLocationFocusTarget AudienceEligibility RequirementsProgram StructureStrengths (from Interviews)Challenges (from Interviews)Best Practices (from Interviews)
Program 1University in Berlin, GermanyEncourage and support female doctoral students and postdocs in science careersFemale doctoral students and postdocsMust be enrolled in a science Ph.D. program or hold a science postdoctoral positionOne-on-one mentoring, workshops on career development, networking eventsMatching mentors with similar research interestsRetaining mentors who transition to new jobsOngoing mentor training, strong program community
Program 2Subsidiary of a technical university in Munich, GermanySupport female students in academic and professional developmentFemale studentsEnrolled in any program at the technical universityPeer mentoring, industry visits, professional skills development workshopsSuccess of peer mentoring for building a supportive communityAttracting a diverse pool of female studentsRegular program evaluation and adaptation
Program 3Science university in AustriaInspire and support young people, particularly women, in computer science, natural sciences, or technologyYoung people, particularly womenHigh school students or early university studentsGroup mentoring, summer camps focused on STEM topics, guest speaker sessions from female leaders in STEM fieldsPositive impact of project-based learningSecuring funding for long-term program activitiesCreating a strong sense of community among participants
Program 4University in Munich, GermanyBuild digital, scientific, and entrepreneurial leadership skills for women with non-academic backgroundsWomen with non-academic backgroundsNo formal education requirements, but interest in STEM fields is preferredProgram with intensive workshops, mentorship from female entrepreneurs and digital leaders, project-based learningValue of project-based learning for practical skill developmentEnsuring all participants feel comfortable in the programEmphasis on unconscious bias training for mentors

The case study yielded insightful recommendations and lessons learned that could be applied to increase the impact of women-focused STEM mentorship efforts on a global scale.


Best Practices & Recommendations infographic for women in STEM mentorship programs

The infographic above illustrates best practices and recommendations for mentorship programs. It features a circle separated into the following five sections: adaptability, commitment & inclusive collaboration; institutional support and leadership development; reciprocal mentorship; building awareness & outreach; and personalized mentor-mentee matching. 

  • Adaptability, Commitment, and Collaboration: Successful programs are adaptable to individual needs, demonstrate long-term commitment, and foster inclusive collaboration.
  • Institutional Support: Strong institutional backing and leadership involvement are crucial for program success.
  • Reciprocal Mentorship: Programs that encourage two-way mentorship, where both mentor and mentee learn from each other, are particularly beneficial.
  • Personalized Matching: Matching mentors and mentees based on shared interests, research areas, and career goals is essential.
  • Building Awareness and Outreach: Effective outreach strategies are needed to attract and retain women in STEM mentorship programs.

Learn More

For the full case study research report by SWE, download the report from the SWE Research website.