STEMs to Flowers: A Grassroots Approach to a Career Mentor Program for Female Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Students

By Zoe Sullivan

As a fellow career services professional, I would be preaching to the choir if I stated the importance of a professional mentoring program for students in higher education. While professional mentors can provide students with industry-specific information for getting hired and can potentially serve as a valuable networking contact, they also may have a particularly important influence on female students pursuing the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. These fields are traditionally underrepresented by women, and while this situation is steadily improving, the disproportion of capable women with STEM qualifications and their representation in these fields persists today (National Science Foundation, 2011).


Despite some contradictory hypotheses, research results repeatedly found the following central factors:

  • Sense of Belonging:

    • Two factors delineated by Hagerty, Lynch-Sauer, Patusky, Bouwsema, and Collier (1992):

      • Valued involvement: the person’s experience of feeling valued, needed, and accepted.

      • Fit: the person’s perception that his or her characteristics articulated with or complemented the system or environment. (p. 173).

    • Female students are more likely to change careers, even when achievement is high in STEM majors (Good, Rattan, and Dweck, 2012).

  • Self-Efficacy:

    • Females tended to report lower self-efficacy levels in both the academic and professional STEM domains, compared with men (Johnson, Stone, and Phillips, 2008; Betz and Hackett, 1983).

  • Social cues that hint at gender biased academic environments:

    • Perceptions of a fixed-ability environment (i.e., men will always be better at math than women) correlated with a lowered sense of belonging among female students (Good, Rattan and Dweck, 2012).

  • Potential lack of awareness of inequity practices for women in STEM:

    • Reports of students viewing inequity practices as “a concept that was much more relevant to their parents’ and grandparents’ generation,” (Goldman, 2010, p. 131), yet described several examples in which gender had impacted their college experience.


Further research onthis topic also revealed significant evidence that a mentor-mentee relationship between a female STEM student and a female professional employed in the field, paired with group meetings of the mentees, addressed all of the factors listed above. The aforementioned research was the inspiration in taking the primary step to implement a STEM Career Mentor Program at California State University, San Luis Obispo, which was to craft an in-depth program proposal.


The proposal linked research to learning outcomes in addition to providing logistical information on program processes and procedures. Sections of the proposal included:

  • mentor recruitment strategies,

  • mentee recruitment and advertisement,

  • student organization and departmental involvement,

  • personal and professional development assignments ranging from strengths identification to informational interviews, and

  • group discussion scripts aimed at increasing a sense of belonging among members while increasing professional self-efficacy.


Due to the complexities of establishing a new mentor program, the implementation process has been divided into three phases, with each phase progressively more involved. The first phase of program implementation involved recruitment, advertising, mentor-mentee matching, and one informational interview.


Using a grassroots approach, mentors were recruited via LinkedIn, the majority of which were Cal Poly alumni. Despite this non-traditional approach of alumni outreach, an overwhelming positive response was achieved. Multiple replies of interest were coupled with personal accounts of the mentors, links to relevant articles on female STEM issues, and additional networking contacts to aid in the recruitment process.


The second step in phase one of the program’s implementation was to advertise it to students by posting flyers, printing informational blurbs in residential hall newsletters, and conducting targeted outreach to student organizations. Interested students met with the program manager to discuss professional interests and then were set up with appropriate mentors. The mentors were able to provide mentees with a personal account of the application process as well as tips and advice for making oneself competitive in their particular field. The passion of the mentors extended beyond the assignments of the program. One mentor ended up serving on a professional panel put on for students titled “Careers in Big Data.”


Phase two of the implementation of the STEM Career Mentor Program, which involved the efforts of phase one in addition to two workshops, was implemented during April-June of 2014. Initial quantitative measures in combination with student testimonials showedan increase in asense of belonging among participating students as well as an increase in self-efficacy in both professional and academic spheres in STEM careers.


With the current implementation of multiple initiatives and grants that aim to advance STEM education, particularly among diverse populations (for example: efforts put forth by NSF such as I3, the ATE program, and the Science Learning+ program), career centers in higher education can continue to foster the growth of STEM disciplines in our society by implementing a program similar to that of the STEM Career Mentor Program. A detailed guide of “best practices” is available through the following link (a 36MB downloadable file): STEM Career Mentor Program Best Practices and Guidelines.





Betz, N. E., & Hackett, G. (1983). The relationship of mathematics self-efficacy expectations to the selection of science-based college majors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 23(3), 329-345. doi: 10.1016/0001-8791(83)90046-5


Goldman, E. G. (2012). Lipstick and labcoats: Undergraduate women’s gender negotiation in STEM fields. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 5(2), 115-140. doi:10.1515/njawhe-2012-1098


Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 700-717. doi: 10.1037/a0026659


Hagerty, B. M. K., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K. L., Bouwsema, M., & Collier P. (1992). Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 6(3), 172-177. doi: 10.1016/0883-9417(92)90028-H


Johnson, R. D., Stone, D. L., & Phillips, T. N. (2008). Relations among ethnicity, gender, beliefs, attitudes, and intention to pursue a career in information technology. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(4), 999-1022. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00336.x


National Science Foundation. (2011). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2011. NSF 11-309. Retrieved from: http://www.eric.ed.gov.ezproxy.lib.calpoly.edu/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED516940




Zoe SullivanZoe Sullivan is a Career Counseling Graduate Intern at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and a Career Practicum Intern at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In June, 2014, she will earn her M.A. in Counseling and Guidance for Higher Education at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She currently provides career counseling, presents workshops on 21st century career strategies, and coordinates the STEM Career Mentor Program, which has been expanded to include students studying business and finance. She can be reached at zasullivan1987@gmail.com.



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rich feller   on Monday 06/02/2014 at 08:35 AM

Nice job Zoe... great update and we will post this on www.stemcareer.com a non-commercial site to help counselors and more...best Rich

Zoe S.   on Monday 06/02/2014 at 03:30 PM

Thank you for your comment, Rich! Happy to be a part of spreading the word.

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