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The impact of Peer Mentors to support diversity in STEM

A Black woman points to a screen, sat alongside a Black man working on a computer in an office.

Peer mentoring is a powerful tool to support diverse talent in STEM, and should be part of your DEI strategy.

Throughout STEM initiatives, we hear that representation is the key to influencing underrepresented communities. Professionals representing aspects of ourselves – class, gender, ethnicity, and cultural background – can make a career or subject more approachable. As humans it is in our biological makeup to follow the herd – especially if that herd looks and behaves like us. However, when we think of representation in STEM, our minds drift to heroic-level profiles. We think of Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, or Ada Lovelace - all inspirational women who changed the world with the power of STEM. But we seldom envision diverse colleagues or peers.

The power of the Peer Mentor in STEM

Peer mentoring provides, smaller pools of diverse talent the opportunity to form a close working relationship with someone of a similar background. This increases the sense of safety, encouraging deeper sharing during the learning process – both at college and in the workplace.

A peer mentor differs from a typical mentor (someone who would be external to the business, typically more senior and probably of a different background), the casual but informative setup is mutually beneficial for both the mentor and the mentee – especially within the STEM space.

The mentor can demonstrate their knowledge, act as a role model figure, and provide a safe space for the mentee to air any concerns or queries without having to go directly to their line manager. On the flip side, the mentee can grow in confidence, develop their skills in a comfortable environment with someone they can relate with and feel reassured that someone can understand their perspective. An 8-year study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on 150 female engineering students found that first-year mentoring helped maintain the female engineering students' confidence in their skills throughout their college careers. In addition, female mentees with female mentors also reported a much greater sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence after the end of their first year when compared to female students with a male mentor. Plus, they were more successful in securing professional internships and more likely to complete an undergraduate degree in a STEM field when compared to female students with male mentors or female students with no mentors. This reiterates the positive impact colleagues who are reflective of individuals from underrepresented groups can have. Connection is key The study showed that connection between the students and others in their peer community is the first step to achieving success in both an academic and professional setting.

Sharing a connection with a colleague who shares a common identity provides a sense of belonging that is unachieved with an excellent organizational culture. Commenting on the importance of connection within representation, Nilanjana Dasgupta, the report’s senior author, and professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst said,

“From high-quality peer relationships within the academic environment, especially relationships with peers who share a common identity, comes the confidence and motivation to persist, which lasts for a very long time, powering that student through her academic and early professional career.”

Diversify the Future is shaping the future of STEM by ensuring that diverse and under-represented communities have access to education and qualifications. We are supported by Engtal, a leading US technology and engineering staffing firm. For every under-represented candidate that Engtal places, they donate $1000 to our scholarship fund. This supports individuals from under-represented or disadvantaged backgrounds to access STEM-specific college scholarships.


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