Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The study is based on a project led by a group of female academics working in a regional university in Australia. The initiative tries to address the female underrepresentation in STEM disciplines through an e-mentoring targeted to mentors and mentees that follow specific criteria. Mentors are females working in STEM-related industries like engineering, technology, or mining companies and scientists. Their role is to share information about their career in STEM and assist mentees in developing the skills they would require to achieve their career goals. Mentees are females in high school or higher education pertaining at least one subject of STEM or women working in STEM areas in a rural environment. The project is flexible regarding contact methods, which include phones, emails, web meetings (Skype and such), online chats and any other means that suited both mentors and mentees.
The project is organized in 5 phases:
1) Phase one is the initial planning of the project, which include the identification of objectives and target groups, involvement of stakeholders, and the selection of the means of program evaluation and monitoring.
2) Phase two is the promotion of the project. It involves the contact with target groups to attract and engage participants (both mentors and mentees). Participants are recruited and matched on a discipline-base.
3) Phase three is the preparation of the participants for the project. Mentors are provided with a handbook containing tools and resources to kick-start the mentoring relationship. The participants are also invited to take part in a synchronous training and information session to understand the project, answer some questions, and receive some tips and principles for success.
4) Phase four is program support aimed at maintaining engagement by the participants. It involves the presence of an e-mentoring facilitator who makes contact with all participants to ensure they remain committed to the mentoring agreement.
5) Phase five is the conclusion of the project and the evaluation of its success.
The project involved 24 mentoring relationships (48 participants) over a 10-month period. Project data is collected from four sources: a pre-mentoring online survey, a post-mentoring online survey, participant interviews, and an anecdotal diary kept by the project facilitator. Data is analyzed using an open coding approach to create common themes for each of the three research questions.
The pre-mentoring online surveys include questions about previous experiences in mentoring, attitude to STEM and expectations about the project; whereas the post-mentoring one include questions about the perception of the experience such as development of the relationship, frequency and method of contact, what kind of support was provided, difficulties faced, advantages and disadvantages of the e-mentoring, and recommendations for program improvements. The pre-survey revealed that mentors were primarily motivated to participate by a sense of altruism whereas mentees primarily viewed the project as a personal career development opportunity.
Regarding the first research question, both mentors and mentees suggested family issues, isolation, managing perception and stereotyping as major challenges. Mentees added that not being taken seriously and the need of proving their own worth were additional obstacles. Mentors being asked about what factors encouraged them to remain in the STEM field revealed that the intrinsic rewards of working in the field are the prevalent reason. Thus, pairing mentees could help them developing positivity and practical coping strategies which improve career satisfaction.
The second research question investigated the expectations of the participants in terms of skills required at a personal and professional level. Expected key skills mentors reported in the pre-mentoring survey included active listening, building a trusting relationship, and providing clear expectations. Post-mentoring survey added constructive feedback and building mentee confidence. Mentees revealed that the required skills they believed needed for mentoring included building confidence and the ability to motivate.
The third research question explored the factors which contributed to satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the mentoring program. The flexibility of online communications was somewhat negated by the main method chosen for communication (Skype). The asynchronous mean of communication (mainly emails) was outweighed by the difficulties of committing time to respond due to pressure of other work commitments. The main detractors from satisfaction included the lack of engagement from the participants and time management challenges for mentors under heavy workloads. Participants also made recommendations for future improvements of the project like sharing photos and the creation of a social platform for the project group.
The paper gives some suggestions for those trying to establish an e-mentoring project. Firstly, it highlights the presence of a mentoring facilitator as a vital component for the success of e-mentoring (someone who establish the mentoring relationships and follows the pair for the whole duration of the project). Secondly, it promotes the creation of an online space or social media page to connect the members of the project. Thirdly, it suggests establishing clarity around goals, frequency of contact and expectations for both mentors and mentees. Lastly, it underlines that mentoring demand time and workload over and beyond normal expectations for the mentors, which should be helped and supported within the existing norms.