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Deborah Wu  
Kelsey Thiem  
Nilanjana Dasgupta  

The Long-Term Impacts of Female Peer Mentors for Women in Engineering

Deborah Wu, Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Kelsey Thiem, Assistant Professor, Ball State University
Nilanjana Dasgupta, Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Members of traditionally underrepresented groups in college, especially those majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, report doubts about their belonging, confidence, and persistence in these fields. To address these disparities, it is important to address two questions:

  1. Which interventions have the most benefit for students’ achievement-oriented self-concept (e.g., belonging, confidence, and persistence)?
  2. How long do these benefits endure after the intervention has ended?

We sought to answer these questions in a multi-year longitudinal field experiment, examining the effectiveness of an intervention for women in engineering, as women only make up 21% of engineering majors in college while making up 52% of college-going students (NSF, 2016). Women also encounter negative stereotypes regarding their ability in engineering.  

Based on the Stereotype Inoculation Model (Dasgupta, 2011), we predicted that forming relationships with a peer role model who shares the same social identity and who is successful in an achievement domain may protect students’ self-concept and success against negative stereotypes. In the context of our project, this meant assigning female peer mentors to first-year women students entering college intending to pursue engineering.

At the start of their first year of college, 150 women in engineering programs at a large northeastern public university were randomly assigned a female peer mentor, a male peer mentor, or no mentor with whom they met periodically. All peer mentors were engineering majors who were in their third or fourth year in college. At three separate time-points during this first year, participants reported their feelings of belonging, confidence, anxiety, motivation, and their intentions to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. The results of this first year were reported in an earlier article (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017). Results from hierarchical linear modeling revealed that women who did not have a peer mentor reported steep declines in belonging, confidence, and intentions to pursue further education in engineering. They also reported increased anxiety and relatively less motivation in engineering. However, consistent with the Stereotype Inoculation Model, women who had a female peer mentor were protected from these negative outcomes. Those who had a male mentor reported responses that fell in-between the other two conditions.

After this first year of college, we followed up with participants every subsequent year until they graduated from college (3-4 years after mentoring had ended). At each of these time-points, participants completed measures of their academic self-concept and self-reported their mental and physical health for that year. Consistent with the first-year results, women with no mentors continued to report steep declines in their feelings of belonging, confidence, and intentions to pursue further education in engineering, as well as a corresponding increase in anxiety and relatively less motivation in engineering. However, those with female mentors held steady and women with male mentors fell in-between. Interestingly, we found that female peer mentorship had a positive effect on health; women who had no mentor reported significant declines in their mental and physical health throughout college, while those who had a female mentor were resilient and did not show such a decline. In sum, we find evidence that one year of female peer mentorship at the start of college can have long-lasting positive effects on academic experiences and health outcomes for women in engineering programs throughout college.


Dasgupta, N. (2011). Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model. Psychological Inquiry, 22(4), 231-246.

Dennehy, T. C. & Dasgupta, N. (2017). Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(23), 5964-5969.

National Science Foundation (2016). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. National Science Foundation. - engineering