Online mentoring scheme could benefit female IT professionals

Women working in IT who feel isolated because they are in a minority could soon benefit from an online support scheme after a...

Women working in IT who feel isolated because they are in a minority could soon benefit from an online support scheme after a successful trial among women mathematicians.

The national scheme, run by Oxford Brookes University with European Union funding, is now being looked at by organisations representing women in technology and engineering. The university itself is considering setting up an internal scheme for all its staff.

Last month the European Women in Mathematics scheme won a BCS prize in the Royal Society's Athena Awards, which recognise work supporting the careers of women in technology, engineering and science.

The scheme was set up to help women in the early stages of their careers in maths. Their problems are similar to those for women starting out in IT, which is dominated by men: less than 20% of IT staff are women.

"Women often find themselves isolated as one of very few female mathematicians in their university, if not the only one," the project team said. "Mentoring is a way of reaching people at crucial decision-making stages in their lives and helping them to have the confidence to continue."

The scheme uses the web to provide profiles of women working in maths, a discussion forum, information on careers and education, links to other resources, and information and guidance on mentoring.

Women and prospective mentors can fill in an online form, including what they need or the support they can provide. They can specify issues such as balancing family and career, gender issues at work, searching for a job and choosing a research project.

Mentors can be men or women: more than half the women taking part in the trial said they were not concerned about the gender of the mentor.

"Male mentors can be very helpful, especially in helping develop strategies for success in a male-dominated profession," the project team said.

So far, 75% of the mentoring has been done by e-mail, although some women and their mentors have also talked by telephone or met in person.

In the first year the website has had more than 4,000 visitors; 50 people have signed up, and most have been matched. The relatively small numbers mean an experienced administrator can do the matching manually, but the Oxford Brookes team said this job could quickly become time-consuming, suggesting automation might become necessary.

"The impact on the individuals matched under the scheme has been positive, even after such a short time," the project team said. "Many have reported that communicating with an impartial adviser has increased their and confidence given opportunities to work and study through contacts made.

"Around two-thirds said the scheme had benefited them in some way and over half felt that having a mentor had made a difference to their career plan."
This was last published in April 2004

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