The transformative power of STEM mentoring: A conversation with Jennifer Ives

November 7, 2023

    the transformative power of stem mentoring with Jennifer Ives

    This week on AI to Z, Anna Frazzeto and Jennifer Ives reunite over a common vision: cultivating diversity in the fields of STEM.

    Jennifer Ives is the co-founder and CEO of Watering Hole, an AI SAAS company that enables customer acquisition and interaction, and in this episode, their discussion was not just a celebration of differences but an analytical look at why diversity is a cornerstone of innovation and a healthier business landscape.

    Listen to the full episode below: 

    The imperative of diverse perspectives in STEM

    The conversation began with a powerful acknowledgement of the long-standing relationship between Anna and Jennifer, both advocates for women in technology. A core belief was reiterated: diversity in STEM goes beyond just being a noble goal—it's a necessity. The mix of different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas is crucial for creating superior products and fostering robust business practices.

    It's not speculation; it's backed by data. Numerous studies from institutions like McKinsey and Harvard have shown that businesses not only thrive but also outperform their competitors when they commit to diversity. It's a sentiment echoed in global practices where inclusivity in technology teams has led to products that better serve a diverse customer base.

    The decline of women in STEM: A critical concern

    When I was in college, about 30% of women earned a STEM degree. Now, depending on the research you look at, it's about 11%. I never thought it would decrease like that."

    A pressing issue brought to the forefront was the significant reduction in the number of women obtaining STEM degrees, a figure that has worryingly decreased from 30% to just 11%. "This alarming statistic is not just a figure; it represents a critical and growing gap in the representation of women in vital sectors that shape our future.

    The journey of women in STEM is uniquely complex and differs significantly from that of their male peers. Recognising and honouring these differences is crucial for establishing inclusive spaces that accommodate a variety of professional paths. Women often discover and engage with STEM fields and ascend to leadership roles in ways that are distinct from men, necessitating a respectful acknowledgement of these varied paths.

    The issue of declining female participation in STEM is not just about statistics; it's a challenge involving how we approach engagement and retention. Frequently, the distinct obstacles that women encounter remain overlooked, creating a hostile atmosphere for those who might otherwise emerge as leaders in STEM disciplines. Jennifer calls for organisations around the world to re-evaluate and adjust to the different ways in which men and women navigate their careers in these sectors.

    The decline of women in STEM underscores an urgent need for understanding and action. To reverse this trend, we must create supportive environments that foster female advancement in tech and beyond. It's not enough to recognize the problem; we must actively implement a comprehensive plan encompassing mentorship, education reform, and policy changes to build a diverse and dynamic STEM workforce.

    The significance of mentorship in STEM

    In any STEM career, the journey is often marked by continuous learning and adaptation, and in these fields, great mentorship is the backbone of professional growth and development. Both Anna and Jennifer reflect on how being both a mentor and a mentee has been pivotal to their success.

    The transformative impact of mentorship cannot be overstated. It provides a scaffold for navigating complex career landscapes, offering mentees personalised guidance that adapts to their evolving needs and aspirations.

    But mentorship is not a one-way street. The innovative concept of reverse mentoring turns the traditional model on its head. Here, seasoned professionals engage with the fresh perspectives and unique insights of the younger generation. This exchange keeps veteran industry players abreast of the latest trends and new ways of thinking, ensuring that their knowledge remains current and comprehensive. It's a testament to the dynamic nature of the STEM fields, where the flow of knowledge is increasingly recognized as multidirectional.

    Reverse mentoring also dismantles hierarchical barriers, cultivating an atmosphere where ideas are valued based on their merit rather than the seniority of their source. This egalitarian approach to learning and development is crucial for innovation, as it allows for a free exchange of ideas, challenging old assumptions and sparking new ways of solving problems. It recognises that expertise can come from any level within an organisation and values the fresh, sometimes unconventional perspectives that can lead to breakthroughs.

    Catalysing early engagement in STEM

    The narrative shifted to describe actionable initiatives that spark interest in STEM from a young age. Programs like those offered by Boolean Girl and RePicture serve as prime examples of how to engage girls and non-binary students, as well as high school graduates, bringing them into the world of STEM through hands-on learning and real-world connections.

    Both organisations illustrate successful strategies in closing the gap in STEM education, particularly in coding and engineering, and in bridging the divide between academia and industry. This holistic approach emphasises not only the acquisition of knowledge but also its application, preparing students for the demands of a career in STEM fields.

    The ripple effect of mentorship

    It's the most rewarding when you see somebody you've mentored, become a mentor to someone else. And that's always so rewarding because it's a little bit of paying forward - where you can see how you can positively influence their direction, their career.

    The transformative power of mentorship within the STEM landscape was a focal point in the podcast, and the exchange between Anna and Jennifer highlighted the profound influence mentors have on their mentees and the cascading impact this relationship can have across the industry.

    In the STEM fields, mentorship is more than a transaction of knowledge; it's the cultivation of a professional bond that can yield significant career milestones. It's not simply about sharing expertise but also about instilling a sense of confidence and possibility. They underlined that a mentor’s influence could reshape career trajectories, and this effect is magnified when mentees themselves become mentors.

    One phrase to empower us all: Bet on you

    The podcast concluded with a resounding message of self-belief. The phrase "Bet on you" served as a poignant takeaway, a reminder to the audience that betting on one’s abilities from day one is key to personal and professional development. It's a declaration that each individual holds the potential to make a significant impact in STEM, provided they have the confidence to invest in themselves.

    Key takeaways

    • Diversity drives innovation. Diverse teams in STEM lead to better products, solutions, and business practices, contributing to superior performance in the marketplace.

    • The significant drop in women pursuing STEM degrees is a complex issue that must be met with targeted strategies to encourage and retain female talent in these fields.

    • Mentoring is crucial for career development in STEM. Both traditional mentorship and reverse mentorship, where more experienced professionals learn from newer entrants, are essential for personal and organizational growth.

    • Initiatives and programs that engage young students, especially girls and non-binary individuals, in STEM, are fundamental to sparking lifelong interest and bridging the gap between education and industry needs.

    • The mentoring process should be a continuous journey. Professionals should seek mentors and also aim to become mentors themselves, creating a supportive learning environment within the STEM community.

    • Witnessing mentees become mentors themselves underscores the impact of mentorship on the industry at large, reinforcing the idea of 'paying it forward'.

    • Senior professionals can gain valuable insights from their mentees, staying updated on industry trends and new perspectives, which highlights the bidirectional nature of learning in mentorship.

    • Organisations that effectively connect academic learning with real-world applications demonstrate successful strategies for preparing students for STEM careers.

    • Supporting programs and initiatives that promote diversity is not just ethical but also a smart business strategy that can lead to more innovative and inclusive outcomes.

    Article and quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity

    This post was written by: Leanna Seah, Content Manager