A fresh approach to mentoring encourages female engineering students to overcome isolation, connect with working engineers and go on to lead successful careers in the sector. Female engineers are greatly outnumbered my males; it is no different on the country's various engineering courses. The ESTeEM Mentoring Project aims to support female engineering students in DIT by connecting them to working female engineers and making it easier to engage constructively with their college and better prepare them for their careers. It was launched in September 2017 on a select number of courses, including Engineering (General Entry) DT066, the common entry point for the majority of undergraduate engineering degrees at DIT.

Addressing the engineering gender balance in college

Co-ordinator of the project Leslie Shoemaker recognised a long time ago the need to address the gender balance in engineering. “Of course it’s a problem across a number of STEM programmes. A number of years ago I used to send second-year engineering students to secondary schools to give an overview of what engineering is and to tell them about the different disciplines, types of jobs and so on to help eradicate some of the misbeliefs that were there. "The first thing they would do is ask the students to draw an engineer, and both boys and girls would consistently draw mechanics, people digging holes, and other actions which did not represent engineering,” she explains.

The pilot programme

Schneider and Arup have provided 13 mentors for the programme. It spans five lunches at which the mentors and students spend time together over the course of the year. The companies also provided speakers for two of the lunches. There are five events during the first year of the programme, each with one or more speakers on the following topics: • ‘My career journey and how mentoring has shaped who I am today’; • ‘The importance of diversity in the workplace’; • ‘Start your strategic planning now’; • ‘From college to Arup and what I have learnt along the way’; and • ‘Enabling flexible working to support diversity’. Shoemaker is delighted with their contribution: “Towards the end of the pilot we will seek feedback from all participants before we prepare for the second year of the programme. All elements of the programme will be reviewed and we will seek to make improvements. “We are hopeful of expanding it to other companies, but of course the programme is still only in its first year. As it is a pilot, it is limited to DIT, Kevin Street. It is also possible that it could expand to other DIT programmes. We have 36 students taking part this year, ranging from first year up to PhD level. There are two to three students per mentor,” she says. Students on the programme choose their preferred mentors based on a brief biography. Each mentor provided information about themselves and answered three questions: • What do you like about your job? • What’s the one thing you would tell your college self? • What can you offer your students? In many cases, it was possible to pair students with mentors who had done the exact same course in DIT and had subsequently gone on to do the specialisation that was the most appealing to the students. Engineering students in DIT specialise in second and subsequent years, and choose one of the following areas: 1.) Electrical & Electronic/Computer & Communication Engineering 2.) Mechanical Engineering 3.) Manufacturing Engineering 4.) Structural Engineering 5.) Building Services Engineering (HVACR) 6.) Civil Engineering A total of 40 per cent of DIT students are currently enrolled in STEM programmes.

The mentor’s perspective

Arup’s Miriam Ryan is taking part as a mentor in the first year of the programme. “We meet approximately every month, with the first one taking place in October 2017. We sit down, have a chat, catch up and then listen to the speaker at the specific event who will discuss issues such as career planning, diversity and flexible working.” All of the meetups are group sessions where mentors and students talk over lunch. It’s important to keep conversations focused on relevant and beneficial topics. “I like to be able to give back something as an engineer. When I was a student there was nothing like this to keep me focused on why I am doing this course and what’s out there when I finish,” says Miriam.

“Of course it is difficult to know exactly what we want to do this early in the course, so getting a perspective from the mentors is really helpful in deciding because they have already made that exact same decision.”

“I am really happy to be able to share some of my experiences, for example, about what classes I took, the different lecturers and what may have changed in the time since I did the course. I can give advice about what I did when I graduated and explain how I used what I learned from the different classes. I can offer a lot of feedback and a different perspective. “I graduated from structural engineering in 2010. I then did a master's in DIT and have worked in engineering since then. I did the exact same undergraduate degree as Diane is currently doing.”

Valuable guidance for students

Diane Pasague is a first-year engineering student in DIT Kevin Street and has been paired with Miriam on the programme. She explains the matching process: “The students are given profiles of the mentors. We then select the ones we see as being the most appropriate options, and the college then tries to match us with our preferences. I am currently in the first year of the engineering course with the option to specialise in second year – with Miriam’s course - structural engineering – being one of the options. “We have to select our specialisation in April of first year. Of course, it is difficult to know exactly what we want to do this early in the course, so getting a perspective from the mentors is really helpful in deciding because they have already made that exact same decision and can speak about how it has helped them. “In the first year of a degree course, it is very difficult to have a clear concept of what can be at the end of the road,” says Diane. Miriam agrees with this point: “You are learning a whole range of skills and, particularly in first year, what you are learning is very broad and it is difficult to judge the merits of the different specialisations. "To put a face to career progression can help. It’s something I didn’t have. I would have found this extremely beneficial during my time in college.” This is just one way in which Arup encourages employees to volunteer. “There are nine or 10 Arup employees participating as mentors. I would recommend it to anybody." You can read about the launch of the ESTeEM Mentoring Project in DIT in September 2017: http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2017/07/17/dit-tackles-gender-gap-engineering-mentorship-programme/