By now, the glaring lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM fields—is a familiar, if disappointing, refrain. It is very difficult to ignore the evidence: Silicon Valley's most powerful boardrooms do little to rebuff the caricature of an institutionalized white male patriarchy. And science isn't faring much better, either; a recent study published in Nature found that women accounted for less than 30% of the shared authorships on all published scientific papers.
There are no easy fixes, of course. The gender imbalance in STEM fields is a deeply rooted structural problem, from the actual hiring process to the education system responsible for churning out the future's workforce. For underrepresented minorities, statistics from the College Board paint a similarly grim reality: In 2011, black and Hispanic graduates accounted for just 12.5% of all engineering bachelor's degrees, even though they account for nearly 30% of the overall population.
While there are no easy fixes, there may be a way to enact meaningful, long-term change—a way to build a future of startups and research labs rich with diverging viewpoints and a wide breadth of experiences. That's where MentorNet, a network dedicated to pairing women and minority students in STEM fields with mentors, would like to make a difference. And it starts with just 15 minutes a week.
The National Science Board's most recent report found that while the number of women majoring in science and engineering is up 21% since 1993, they are still woefully underrepresented compared to their male counterparts, accounting for just 28% of STEM graduates in 2010. "There is a panoply of other challenges that women and minority students have," Mary Fernandez, CEO of MentorNet, told Fast Company. "First-generation Americans and students have a harder time navigating the education system. What we've discovered in our own work is that mentors can help these students stay in school."
Since it was founded in 1997, MentorNet's overarching goal has been to help women and minority students achieve academic success by pairing them with an experienced mentor, who they meet with for 15 minutes a week. The program's success rate bears this out: Over 92% of the MentorNet's protégés go on to graduate.
Fernandez, who took over as MentorNet CEO in May 2013, knows how valuable a role model can be to an individual's career; she says her own mentor was critical to getting her to where she is today. A computer scientist by training, Fernandez says she bounced through the education system—and even took a few years off from school, selling computers in order to afford tuition—before spending the first chunk of her post-doctoral career at AT&T Bell Labs.
"I actually had a little bit of a bumpy road," said Fernandez. "I went to Brown University, which took me a while to get through. By the time I was finished, I had decided to go to graduate school in Princeton. It was there I received a grant from AT&T Bell Labs, which included a mentor."
Although the mentorship was surprising at first, Fernandez says that the informal guidance of her counselor, Brian Kernighan (inventor of the C programming language, who she still keeps in touch with today), was "instrumental" in helping her achieve her PhD. And yet, it's an asset that most students simply don't have in their academic careers. "My mission is to foster a prevalent culture of mentoring in the STEM fields, to make it a fundamental part of the education experience," says Fernandez. "Right now, it doesn't exist." The dearth of role models is something Fernandez is keenly aware of, and informs MentorNet's core values from the ground up.
"I really believe that the power of social networking can help this," says Fernandez. "You can start to foster a behavior early in a student's career. They come to expect that a mentor is supposed to be part of their trajectory; and what happens is it snowballs."
Last week, MentorNet announced it was partnering with LinkedIn for a new, multi-faceted initiative intended to expand its modest reach. While the organization has paired over 32,000 mentees with mentors in its 15 years of existence, it has failed in one key aspect: Using the connective fabric of the social web to grow accordingly.
"We're looking at a significant scale up," says Fernandez. For MentorNet, which hopes to complete a site revamp in 2014, tapping LinkedIn's enormous network of 277 million professionals means a couple of things. Not only can it reach out to new, potential mentors in LinkedIn's massive user base, but it can also alleviate the logistical nightmare of sifting through mentor applications by harvesting the social network's deep well of data. Simply put: Better data means better targeting.
"LinkedIn is this rich profile for education, employment, and where people are in the world," she says. "We can combine that with the data for our program, and once you understand the challenges people are facing, once you have this really rich profile, you can begin to match mentors and protégés algorithmically."
For the first time, it also gives MentorNet the ability to accurately assess the success of participants once they've graduated. "If you're looking at programs to help students persist in their education, tracking and measuring the long-term impact of those programs is extremely difficult," says Fernandez. Now, MentorNet can not only use LinkedIn to track a user's career, but it can help deduce how far that individual climbs up a company's ladder, or even if the mentor chosen helped them land a job via their network. "LinkedIn is really this unprecedented platform for analyzing education and employment over an individual's lifetime," says Fernandez.
While the technology industry's cultural failures are well documented—most recently rearing its head when GitHub engineer Julie Horvath quit her job over alleged sexism—Fernandez offers another reason the industry should strive for more inclusive standards: The current hiring trajectory simply isn't sustainable.
"There's an economic imperative for more diversity," says Fernandez. By continuously re-drawing the same pool of white, privileged males, we're putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. We ignore this, she says, at our own peril. "You had better be tapping all potential talent," she says. "Women have to be part of the story. Latinos have to be part of the story. First-generation college attendees have to be part of the story."
"Right now, it's not sustainable," she says, letting the words linger for an extra half second. "There can't be talent left on the table."