It's the International Day of Women and Girls in Science; a day designed to showcase women in science and inspire future scientists in our communities. This day is just a small piece in the jigsaw of opening up academia and science more widely, and the day itself creates a wide variety of activities, events and discussions across the world. It is important to note that there are many underrepresented groups in science and today is about profiling women in science and using them to inspire everyone, particularly girls and children who may not see themselves represented in science in everyday media. Today raises awareness of the underrepresentation of women in science but is not designed to diminish the importance of highlighting other underrepresented groups. It's worth noting that the terminology and data collection is still heavily skewed towards gender binarity, which means that many people feel they are excluded from celebrating, showcasing and feeling represented within science.
Inclusion in science is a complicated and nuanced topic, and beyond the scope of this article, however, one of the most important and powerful tools of sharing privilege, showcasing individuals, creating role models and inspiring future scientists is to provide young people with an academia- or industry-based mentor. Of course, underrepresented individuals in academia are often overworked and burdened with a variety of responsibilities; charities like The Girls' Network provide a structured schedule and training to make the mentoring process as easy as possible. We cannot overlook the importance (and enjoyment) of mentorship roles for professionals from all different backgrounds and walks of life.
The Girls' Network is a UK-based charity that connects professional women from all different sectors and subject areas with teenage girls and young women in their local area. Through in-person or online mentoring sessions, the mentee is given focus, attention, support and guidance from a woman role model. The charity liaises with schools, organises training, vetting and structures the 10 mentor sessions and provides support and advice for mentors. Mentors can follow the structured sessions or use them as a theme to explore ideas that suit the mentee. The mentee not only benefits from the discussions, activities and advice from their mentor, but they are also given confidence through having focused attention from a professional woman, often someone from a background similar to their own.
Why mentor? and how does this relate to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
Mentoring is an amazing way to share your experience and skills with a young woman that might not benefit from this support otherwise. It is also a great way to show a teenage girl that you believe in her, and that she is worth investing time in. This is a powerful combination, and one that the Girls' Network have seen transform the lives of girls and young women again and again.
"It's also a great way to pay attention to your own professional progression." says Dr. Helen Jermak, NRT Project Scientist and mentor at The Girls' Network, "I talked through a variety of different topics with my mentee and because I was sharing my own experiences and answering the questions myself it actually really helped with my own insecurities and targets." Mentors have also commented how incredible their mentees are, many with a wide variety of skills, interests and experiences; The Girls' Network give their mentees the time, support and opportunity to harness their capabilities, giving them better prospects for their future careers.
Mentoring is a great way to directly give back to our communities. While it might be seen as a slow process, it has high levels of impact on mentors and mentees and can be a direct and practical way to advance women and girls in science. Often we see 'international days' come and go, and little tangible impact is made, but this time maybe contributing to mentoring, role model showcasing or engaging with school children is how we can contribute this International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
So what skills make a good mentor?
Can you relate well to others?
Are you good at working through problems?
Are you committed and reliable?
Can you provide insight from your personal experiences?
The Girls' Network invite women to sign up to become a mentor if they have experience of the workplace, have time and willingness to support a mentee from one of the least-advantaged communities across the UK, and want to support a young woman to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities. They ask mentors for a commitment of at least one hour a month, over the course of a year.
There are a variety of mentoring organisations across the world, some internal to peoples' workplaces or universities. While The Girls' Network is just for women and teenage girls in the UK, there are many opportunities for people to be role models for young people from all kinds of backgrounds. One example of physics mentoring is the Supernova Foundation, a programme designed to inspire and support young women and gender minorities who are looking to pursue careers in Physics. They state: ‘The gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields is a serious international societal problem which needs to be addressed. Many women, particularly women from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not often have access to women role models to inspire and guide them. It is extremely challenging for women of many cultures to find mentors they can easily talk to and get advice from. We aim to remedy this by connecting women students in Physics to established women researchers around the world to receive mentoring." The NRT outreach officer Sandra Benítez Herrera is a mentor at this organization and gives support to young women that have just started a career in Astrophysics.
But what if your schedule is full, or you are at capacity, or you feel that mentoring does not suit your skills? Here are 5 ways you can contribute without needing to sign up as a mentor:
Probably the most important way to contribute is to educate yourself about the issues facing inclusion and diversity in sciences. Accept others' experiences, don't challenge them. Sometimes the easiest way to support others is to understand how they are struggling without them having to tell you. As an example, this guide, is written for black girls, but it is also a useful educational tool which 'helps you to be a better friend, parent, sibling or teacher to black girls'. Many universities and organisations hold a variety of talks and workshops focused on educating staff about inclusion initiatives, sign up and learn.
Donate to a mentoring charity, like The Girls' Network, or local community charities or mentoring schemes that work with underrepresented groups.
Write a profile about yourself for social media, your website or for your department/company website. Talk about what you wanted to be when you were a child, how you got into your subject/job, your background, your interests outside of work, your background and what makes you you.
Write a 'failure CV' to show people your success-despite-failure. Share this via your social media, or on your department/company website.
Promote the work being done by mentoring organisations and/or committees within your workplace. Raise up the profile of the projects and people involved. Support by word-of-mouth and positive mentions can be really valuable.