Targeted Mentoring Programs: Women in STEM & Learning Across Generations

September 1, 2017 Barbara McMahan


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As discussed in my previous post, a best in class mentoring program starts by establishing the specific objectives and desired outcomes of the mentoring experience. As part of that process, it’s key to pinpoint your mentee target audience. This will help define both the program structure and the skill sets needed by the mentors you engage.

Over the course of my career as an international Organizational Development professional, I’ve seen growing interest in leveraging the power of mentoring to address two challenging talent dynamics facing companies today:  1) attracting and retaining women in STEM professions; and 2) effectively blending a multi-generational workforce. Mentoring programs tailored to address these specific issues can be a highly effective way to create competitive advantage through enhanced productivity, engagement, and retention. They lead to a collaborative workforce that drives innovation. Here are some key factors to consider when designing mentoring initiatives to address these specific challenges.

Keeping Women in STEM

According to Forbes, although women make up almost half of the workforce, they comprise only 24% of professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields (STEM).  Also of note, only 41% of women who start a STEM career remain in the field 10 years later.  Traditionally, STEM roles have been filled predominantly by men. Women in STEM frequently encounter unique challenges, ranging from subtle harassment meant to diminish confidence and self -esteem, to explicit hostility. I have worked with many talented female engineers who began to doubt their abilities due to the way they were treated.  These women have reported being interrupted in meetings, having male counterparts take credit for their ideas, having difficulty getting exposure to influential senior leaders in order to present ideas and recommendations, and other subtle and not-so-subtle roadblocks to success and enjoyment in their chosen career.  A mentoring program that matches experienced women professionals with those early in their career allows  to receive sage advice from those who have successfully handled similar situations.   Successful mentoring can build self-confidence, reignite the motivation that led to a STEM career in the first place, and, ultimately, increase retention. 

Finding the right STEM women to mentor is the critical first step. Mentors must be unafraid to share missed opportunities, what they learned the hard way, and what they would do differently if they could. Through the mentors’  stories, mentees learn strategies to avoid similar mistakes or missteps and, importantly, how to recover from situations that might have already occurred.  Dialogue should include career pathing, how the mentor got started, why she chose a STEM career, and what she has learned along the way.  Also, the mentee can benefit from hearing her mentor’s likes/dislikes with respect to STEM: an unvarnished perspective on the good, the bad, and the ugly. Given the limited number of career-long STEM women, finding female role models in the field can be difficult. Don’t limit your pool of potential STEM women mentors to those within your own company. Look to alumni groups of organizations within the industry or to talent communities, like YourEncore, with a specialty in engaging and nurturing STEM experts.

When selecting mentee participants,  choose risk takers (not hard to find among the women in STEM or they wouldn’t have chosen the field to begin with!). Mentees must be willing to share their concerns, questions, and frustrations and be open to advice and counsel.  Perhaps most important, when designing the program, allow time for trust to build along the way.  This will create a foundation for meaningful communication and long term relationships between Mentors and Mentees.

Learn More About Creating Competitive Advantage Through Mentoring.    Register for the Free Webinar  September 12, 2017 | 12:00-1:00 EST

Successfully blending a multi-generational workforce

For the first time in history, organizations may have up to four generations working alongside each other: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials.  Each brings its own distinct history, characteristics, values, and attitudes to work. These differences can be a source of conflict, but also represent an opportunity to improve total company performance if the strengths of each group are recognized and leveraged across the entire workforce. Well designed cross-generational mentoring programs, both “traditional” (older to younger) and “reverse” (younger to older) are essential in bridging talent, skill, and communication gaps that can hinder achievement of business results.

For example, with over 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, collective memory and institutional knowledge is rapidly being depleted. Forward-thinking companies are formalizing mentoring programs to capture and share expertise as part of a phased retirement plan.  Blending tenured talent with new talent builds a sense of ownership and connection and demonstrates the value of the intellectual property held by long-term employees. Pre-retiree mentors bring a combination of experience, gut feel, and intuition, along with diverse category/industry experience (both successes and failures) that can help ground younger mentees in best practices and short-cut learning cycles by avoiding costly mistakes. Leveraging this knowledge drives value, relevancy and productivity and is a critical component of building a talent pipeline for succession planning.  In addition, if the organization grapples with functional silos, assigning pre-retiree mentors to work with individuals across different parts of the organization not only transfers information, but also helps reduce barriers.  

At the other end of the spectrum, Millennials can play a key role in providing valuable skills and knowledge through “reverse” mentoring. In reverse mentoring designs, those newer to the workforce mentor those who may have more functional expertise, but lack skills or confidence in using new technologies, social media tools, or other resources that are second nature to these digital natives. Millennials partner with previous generations to share tips on communication preferences (i.e. texting vs. calling) and how to work more effectively across the different generations.

Executive Leadership support is critical for the success of reverse mentoring programs.  Select mentees and mentors that are engaged and committed to learning with an open mind.  If the mentee feels threatened or doesn’t believe he/she can learn from their younger mentor, the program will fail. Give specific homework assignments; this will create a higher degree of accountability.  For instance, mentees could be asked the following questions to help pinpoint their level of familiarity, use, and comfort with various social media and technologies:

  • Do you pay your bills online?
  • Do you have a Facebook and LinkedIn account?
  • Do you watch Youtube and use Instagram or Snapchat?
  • Are you familiar with cloud based technology?

Based on this feedback, the reverse mentoring curriculum can target specific areas for growth and development, leading to a lasting impact well-beyond the end of that particular program. 

Designing mentoring programs to address the needs of specific affinity groups can improve overall skill levels, and increase employee retention, engagement and knowledge transfer. Take the time upfront to determine where you want to focus your efforts in order to create meaningful outcomes. Making mentoring a part of the employment life cycle will strengthen company performance over time.  Need help getting started? Contact me and we’ll work together to design a program to address the needs of your organization.


About Barbara McMahan: Barbara has over 20 years of leadership experience as an Organizational Development and Human Resources professional across a diverse group of companies and categories, including Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, LCA Vision, and Mike Albert Fleet Solutions. She has worked and consulted in corporate, non-profit, and academic settings in the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico. A YourEncore Expert since May 2017, Barb enjoys helping teams and individuals identify their unique strengths to create innovative opportunities for professional growth. She holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan, a Master of Labor & Industrial Relations from Michigan State University, and NTL, SPHR, and SHRM-SCP professional certifications.



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