July 28, 2021 | Updated: June 21, 2022
Mentors are uniquely positioned to help increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in STEM by serving as role models for individuals that look and identify like them, encouraging a more welcoming environment for continued growth for marginalized communities. More broadly, mentors show younger students that it’s possible to follow their dreams and be successful – regardless of gender, ethnic background, cultural background, socioeconomic status, etc.
To better understand the importance of diverse mentorship in education equity, we spoke with four IEEE members making a difference in STEM.
The Importance of DEI in Mentorship and Personal Connections
Jing Dong, IEEE Senior Member
People are like leaves – there are no two in the world that are identical. Everyone is unique, and so we cannot consider education to be a single, one-size-fits-all-model. Hence, diversity, equity and inclusion are very important factors within the context of mentorship, as they serve to provide multiple perspectives for students, inspiring them to better apply themselves and be creative.
Ultimately, mentors have the capacity to have a tremendous influence on young people in particular; the relationship between mentor and mentee has always reminded me of the parent-child dynamic, which is why it’s so critical for students to identify their role models earlier on.
Keeley Crockett, IEEE Member
In 2001, I attended the IEEE conference on Fuzzy Systems FUZZ-IEEE in Melbourne, where I was fortunate to meet Professor Bernadette Bouchon-Meunier from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, who had started the group within the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society, also known as the IEEE Women in Computational Intelligence.
Several years later, at FUZZ-IEEE 2006, I attended a networking lunch and was on a panel and unofficially adopted Bernadette as my mentor.
Bernadette is still my mentor; she is always there for me when I’m seeking advice. She has helped me tremendously with respect to my career development and I consider myself extremely lucky to have connected with her so many years ago.
Paths Towards Diversity in STEM
Jelena Kovačević, IEEE Fellow
Mentorship has always been an important part of the academic process.
If we are working towards creating a more diverse and inclusive academic environment that better represents the communities we live in, then we need to encourage, and make a point of, creating more DEI-focused mentorship opportunities. To increase the number of students from underrepresented communities in STEM, we need to have not only a larger number of people that the students will identify with, but also provide support to both mentors and mentees.
I had a number of people in my life who helped me. I consider myself very lucky. The best mentors are those who are supportive but also honest; I may not have always liked their suggestions, but because I knew they had my best interests at heart. I always took them seriously, even if I didn’t always follow them.
Tereza Cristina Melo de Brito Carvalho, IEEE Member
In Brazil, I coordinate a program called Paideia, which aims to train low-income students aged 15-17 in digital technologies to enable them to increase their employability. This program is organized in three tracks: digital technologies and computer programming; sustainable development and management.
Many students in this program find themselves frustrated, as math and logic programming, two core components of the curriculum, are very challenging. When this occurs, my colleagues and I introduce mentors to struggling students. We’ve found that the struggling students are much more receptive to their mentors than teachers.
Diversity of Thought for Better Innovation
Keeley Crockett, IEEE Member
In artificial intelligence product and service conceptualization and design, having a diverse team can foster more holistic product development, enabling us to better tackle problems, such as data quality, representativeness and potential bias – in many forms – when building machine learning models.
For a student, being mentored by a role model that looks and identifies like them enables valuable experiences to be shared, particularly within the context of navigating challenges. Mentors can empower mentees to devise their own strategies to better place them in positions of control, enabling them to contribute to industry and society in ways that otherwise might not have been possible.
I mentored a young woman who was studying for her degree with great aspirations. She became pregnant just before her final year. She came back after six months and completed her studies. We carried on our mentoring relationship all the way through her studies and beyond.
Sometimes mentoring is about listening, empathizing and providing support beyond what typically occurs within a formal mentor-mentee relationship. Being a great mentor is about being at the other end of a phone call when someone needs you and being able to get them the specific help and support they need.
Six years later, she is now also a qualified teacher, has a beautiful son, and has gotten married. We are lifelong mentee-mentors.