Female peer mentors have long-lasting positive impact on female … – The British Psychological Society

Women who were assigned female peer monitors felt more confident and motivated, and were more likely to participate in an internship or continue to post-graduate study.
24 January 2023
By Emily Reynolds
Peer mentoring is one of many ways that marginalised students are encouraged to continue their studies, particularly in fields that are dominated by certain groups of people. In STEM subjects, for example, women are frequently underrepresented: peer mentoring by other female students, therefore, can provide students with positive role models and combat stereotypes about who “belongs” in the field.
While peer mentoring has already been found to have positives for students, a new study in Nature Communications looks at the longer-term impact of such schemes. It finds that the positive influence of peer monitoring for female students can last beyond the end of a degree.
Participants were 150 women first and second year students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, all of whom were majoring in engineering. Student mentors – 32 women, 26 men – were also recruited to the study; they were third and fourth year undergraduate students in the same major as their mentee. Data was collected over the course of eight years, from 2011 to 2019.
During the first year of their study, participants were randomly assigned either to a female mentor, a male mentor, or no mentor at all. Before starting their mentoring, mentors took part in a facilitated group discussion, identifying the experiences that had encouraged and discouraged them to persist with their engineering majors. These ideas were then made into a mentoring guide, which also encouraged mentors to provide advice on coursework, help mentees develop plans for careers, provide social support, and connect mentees with others. Mentors then met with their mentees four times for an hour during mentees’ first year in college.
Throughout the mentoring process, mentee participants completed three surveys at different points during the academic year: once prior to meeting their mentors, once halfway through the academic year, and once at the end. They then completed follow-up surveys every year until they graduated, plus one year post-graduation. In these surveys, participants indicated how confident they were in their ability in engineering and also reported their motivation to succeed in their degree.
At the end of their first year, and in each survey after this, participants also noted whether they had had an internship in the last year, whether or not they had achieved their degree, how likely they were to pursue a Master’s degree or PhD, and how their mental health had been over the last year.
The team found that being assigned to a female mentor was associated with a significant improvement in mentees’ experiences in engineering. Those without mentors and with male mentors showed a decline in confidence from entry to college through to graduation and beyond, while those with female mentors maintained their confidence without any decline. The same pattern also held for motivation.
Having a female mentor also influenced participants’ intentions to remain in the field: 82% of those with a female mentor participated in an internship during college, compared to 61% of participants without a mentor and 65% of those with male mentors. And while those with no mentor or a male mentor showed a decline in their intention to pursue a postgraduate degree across the course of their studies, this wasn’t true for those with female mentors. Further statistical analysis showed that these effects occurred because participants with female mentors were more confident in their abilities.
Finally, participants with a female mentor showed no decline in their emotional wellbeing throughout college, while those with a male mentor or no mentor at all declined in their wellbeing.
Overall, the study suggests that same gender peer mentoring can have a significant – and long-lasting – impact on women’s engagement with their degrees. This seems to be partly because peer mentoring can prevent female students’ confidence from declining, though the team also suggest other possible mechanisms. Female mentors may have expanded the social networks of their mentees, allowing them to “offset disparities in professional connections that often constrain members of minority groups”. Advice may also have been particularly useful from female mentors as they understood these barriers and constraints far more intuitively than male mentors. Female mentors may have brought about a change in mindset during a crucial transitional period, encouraging women to remain in the field where previously they may not have.
It would also be interesting to understand whether mentoring could work in a similar way for different marginalised groups: whether mentoring from those with a similar disability, from the same culture, or from the same socioeconomic background could perform the same function as same-gender mentoring.
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