Case Study: Empowering women through mentoring

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Over the next few weeks we will be sharing some case studies of our academic research from across the Bristol Business School. This case study looks at Professor Sue Durbin and  Empowering women through mentoring.

Written by Jeremy Allen:

In the UK, there is a distinct lack of women in engineering roles and this is prevalent in the aerospace and aviation industries. A project led by UWE Bristol that is four years in the making is helping women to move up the career ladder and to seek support by receiving mentoring from other women in the industry. This work hopes to change the way females are perceived in male-dominated industries and aims to put an end to gender inequality in engineering.

“The UK is the country in Europe that has the least amount of women in engineering and this includes the aerospace industry, where there is a chronic shortage of females,” says project leader Professor Sue Durbin, whose research specialises in gender inequalities in employment in male dominated industries. “Through this project, we want to empower women to gain confidence by receiving non-judgemental female-to-female advice and support, thereby enabling their careers to take off.”

Called ‘alta’, the project enables professional women to access an online platform to help them link up with a suitable female mentor. Based on their answers to online questions, the website’s algorithm then matches up the mentee with the most compatible mentor.

Volunteering mentors are also required to answer questions on the platform to determine whether they have the right skills and personality to oversee someone else’s career development. As well as helping women receive career guidance, alta is beneficial for the mentors, as it helps raise their profile in the profession.

After initial contact, both parties are free to arrange when, where and how often they meet, although they are advised to meet for one to two hours every six weeks.

Under the aegis of the Royal Aeronautical Society, alta is working with Airbus, the Royal Air Force and other partners across the aerospace industry. By signing up to alta and paying a small joining fee, companies can help their female professionals receive mentoring from across the industry – not just from someone in their company.

Such assistance can help women feel valued, to assist them in getting into leadership positions, and increase female retention in the industry. It might also help them gain confidence, receive assistance when they are returning to work after a maternity break, or reduce their suffering from ‘impostor syndrome,’ whereby they feel they don’t deserve to thrive in a male-dominated workplace.

“If we take the Royal Aeronautical Society, it has 25,000 members but just 1700 are women, while in the UK only four percent of pilots are women,” says Professor Durbin. “This puts a lot of pressure on women working in the industry.”

The mentoring project comes at a time when many young women who take STEM subjects are failing to enter the engineering workforce, given the gender stereotyping that can exist in the sector. Professional women engineers also often drop out of the industry or fail to return after maternity leave. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a “leaky pipeline,” a metaphor used to describe the continuous loss of women in STEM as they climb the career ladder.

Prior to alta’s launch in June 2018, the team organised focus groups, interviews and a survey to decide how the scheme could help professional women in the aerospace and aviation industry. After contacting 250 women, they discovered that existing mentoring was extremely limited in the industry and often did not include women as mentors. They also discovered that women were actively seeking female mentors in senior positions.

“You can’t be who you can’t see,” says Stella Warren, who is Research Associate in the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre and also works on the project. “If you don’t have a female mentor who is a leader in the industry, it is hard to aspire to reaching that same level.”

One mentee who has received mentoring through alta says it has really helped boost her self-belief.

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