Telemachus and Mentor
by Pablo E. Fabisch
from Les Adventures de Telemaque
The Oxford English Dictionary defines mentor as "allusively, one who fulfils the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus. Hence, as common noun: An experienced and trusted adviser." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary provides two definitions, separating the original and acquired meaning: "a friend of Odysseus entrusted with the education of Odysseus' son Telemachus" and "a trusted counselor or guide, tutor, coach." The origins of the modern meaning are often traced back to The Odyssey of Homer, when the goddess Pallas Athena assumed the form of the family friend Mentor (one of the many forms she assumed) to support Odysseus' son Telemachus. One might argue that the first "mentor" described in literature was Athena, a goddess and not an old man. In fact, the Odyssey provides only hints of the currently assumed sage and supportive role of Mentor, these attributes were more explicitly spelled out much later in 1699 in Les Adventures de Telemaque, by Francois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon (1651-1715). In modern times, mentoring has been recognized as a critical aspect of "the professional and/or personal development of an individual," and it is seen as a lifelong process [4]. Effective mentoring is important to all persons pursuing an advanced degree in engineering, and especially to those beginning academic careers. Mentors can open doors and provide opportunity even through association rather than through direct contact. This is especially true in academia, where an applicant's graduate institution and adviser are often enough to secure serious consideration by a hiring committee. Studies have shown that women receive less mentoring and have a more difficult time being selected as mentees than males, especially in male-dominated fields such as engineering. Women may also have a greater need for mentors due to their low numbers, few role models, and some exclusion from peer networks and socialization.
Caltech engineering faculty
distribution among men and women
The difficulty that some women encounter in finding Ph.D. advisers attests to this observation. It is due to this fact, in part, that the number of women earning Ph.D.s in electrical engineering is low; from 1985-2001, this percentage was less than 8.2% of the total [6][7].

As of 1996, there were 124 tenured and tenure-track women EE professors at United States universities [8]. Of the top twenty departments, an informal scanning of their departmental Web pages yielded a total of 75 tenured and tenure-track women in EE. These numbers are not good, they show a wide distance between representation in the population and representation in engineering faculties, and the poor numbers play a major role in the poor numbers in student bodies. A field suffers when it fails to attract and encourage diverse talent.

Although many factors affect these statistics and a variety of approaches exist to improve them, arguably the means by which a small number of people can have the maximum impact is by encouraging, assisting, and supporting those who understand the value of diversity and wish to become leaders in academia. The importance of mentoring in science, mathematics, and engineering is known at the national level. In particular, in 1966 the White House established the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). The program is administered on behalf of the White House by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Program Director is Dr. Marilyn Suiter, who together with Stanford Dean of Engineering Jim Plummer provided a welcome and introduction to the workshop participants. PAESMEM identifies outstanding mentoring efforts/programs designed to enhance the participation of groups underrepresented in science, mathematics and engineering. The awardees serve as exemplars to their colleagues and are leaders in the national effort to more fully develop the nation's human resources in science, mathematics and engineering. The awards include funds to support the awardees' projects, including workshops, Websites, and developing and expanding mentoring programs. Dr. Suiter and several PAESMEM recipients (Brainard, Wadia-Fasceti, Mecartney, Muller, Denton, Gray) participated in the workshop.

A working definition of mentoring at PAESMEM is an interaction between a more experienced person and a less experienced person; it provides guidance that motivates the mentored person to take action. The PAESMEM program supports a research agenda on science and engineering workforce mentoring in cooperation with other programs. This includes the exploration of career mentoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) Career Mentoring by NSF's Committee on Equal Opportunity in Science and Engineering (CEOSE), in partnership with PAESMEM, and implemented by AAAS/EHR (Yolanda George) with support from AAAS's Committee on Opportunities in Science (COOS). The project also builds on an earlier AGEP-based AAAS study group meeting. The goals are

  1. to identify existing research (and gaps therein) in research on STEM career mentoring (a bibliography was researched and developed prior to the meeting and will be available on the project Website);
  2. develop and refine standards for career mentoring in STEM; and
  3. discuss and develop an initial framework for assessing career mentoring in STEM.

This workshop contributed to the awareness of several of these issues in a core group of enthusiastic participants. It is hoped that these proceedings will add to the promulgation of these ideas and provide supporting material for mentors and mentees, current and future.

May 9, 2005