Five engineering alumnae came back to Lehigh last week to tell current engineering students about the importance of having a mentor and to give them tips on how to find and work with one.
The returning former students joined two engineering professors in a panel discussion that kicked off the 2011-12 campuswide celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the admission of undergraduate women to Lehigh.
Titled “Engineering Success: The Importance of Mentoring,” the discussion was sponsored by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and moderated by Mary Fernandez, chair of the board of directors of MentorNet.
About 70 students attended the event, which was held in the auditorium of the STEPS building.
Members of the panel were Autumn Bayles ’92, Linda Hendrixson ’06, Elizabeth King ’79, Melissa Rohland ’86 and Julie Shimer ’79 M.S., ’82 Ph.D., and Sibel Pamukcu, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Aurelie Thiele, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering.
MentorNet, a web-based program in Santa Clara, Calif., seeks to increase the numbers of women and minorities in engineering. Nationwide, about 17 percent of college engineering majors are women. At Lehigh, about 24 percent of engineering students are female.
To coach, to inspire, to champion
Panelists said they had had a variety of mentors in middle and high school, in college and in their careers. Two said their fathers had introduced them to engineering and encouraged them to pursue it as a profession. Several said a middle- or high-school teacher had been particularly helpful. One cited an athletic coach, and several pointed to a college professor.
Bayles, who holds a B.S. in industrial engineering, said she had been helped by three types of mentors—coaches, inspirational leaders, and champions, who have the power to get things done.
Rohland and King said workplace mentors had given them the confidence that with preparation and hard work they could achieve what they wanted.
“When I entered the workforce in 1987, engineering was still a man’s field,” said Rohland, who holds a B.S. in civil engineering and an MBA and is now project management office leader for the North American Civil and Geospatial verticals at Bentley Systems.
“I was the only woman at my firm. But I had a mentor who believed in me and gave me challenging things to do. I still keep in touch with him.”
A nudge out of the comfort zone
King, vice president of strategic alliances for Juniper Networks, spent the first half of her career in a defense-related industry, where she was the only woman engineer in the company.
“All my early mentors were men,” she said. “One of them believed enough in me to move me to international sales when I got my MBA. He taught me to be a chameleon and to work in many different countries.
“When I need a mentor, I look for a leader with capabilities I don’t have who can help get me out of my comfort zone.”
A mentoring relationship requires two-way commitment, panelists said.
“As a mentor, you have to be committed to your protégé and your protégé to you,” said King, who holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an MBA. “You have to put time into the relationship.”
King’s opinion was echoed by Shimer, who earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Lehigh and is now CEO of Welch Allyn, a manufacturer of medical equipment.
“As a protégé, you’re asking a prospective mentor to put energy into a relationship with you. You need to take ownership of that relationship, to set the agenda and to come prepared.”
In the end, said Hendrixson, who is global manager for complaint handling and field actions with Synthes, it is the protégés who must learn to assert themselves.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for advice,” said Hendrixson, who holds a B.S. in bioengineering and an M.S. in quality engineering. “But don’t feel that you have to take that advice.”
Photo by Theo Anderson