New Mentorship Program for Women Engineering Students ‘Very Valuable, Much Needed’

Women engineering students gathering

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some things just don’t get covered in the classroom.

That’s one reason why Gonul Kaletunc created a mentoring program for women engineering students at The Ohio State University.

Although women make up 20 percent of engineering graduates, only 11 percent of the engineering workforce is female, said Kaletunc, professor of food engineering in Ohio State’s colleges of Engineering and Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Reasons for leaving the profession include workplace climate and perception of the workplace, while reasons for staying include having key supportive people in place.

“It happens very quickly,” Kaletunc said. “About 40 percent of the women leave engineering jobs very early in their career. The culture needs to change.”

In the meantime, she said, it’s important to help women negotiate their work environment in engineering.

“When I was starting my career, I had very good advisers, but no official mentor. I had to discover a lot of things myself,” Kaletunc said.

She thought a lot about that when she was one of two faculty members chosen to represent Ohio State in 2015-16 as a fellow in the Executive Leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering program, run by Philadelphia’s Drexel University. As part of her participation in ELATE, Kaletunc decided to create and pilot a new mentoring program for women engineering students at Ohio State.

“I had been talking about the need for a structured mentoring program for a long time,” Kaletunc said. “A mentoring program should be long enough to allow mentors and mentees to build a relationship.

“And, since I wanted to have students get together to talk about their experience, another important aspect was to make sure to keep them all on the same page. So, I wrote a curriculum.”

The pilot program lasted 21 weeks, from October 2015 to April 2016, spreading across fall and spring semesters. It involved 13 students who were paired up with 13 professional women engineers.

Every other week, the pairs would meet to discuss a topic in the curriculum Kaletunc developed, including:

  • Career goals
  • Job search, interviews and job selection
  • Negotiation
  • Adaptation to a new workplace, location or both
  • Interactions with a supervisor, peers and direct reports
  • Conflict resolution
  • Career management
  • Diversity
  • Building mentorship, sponsorship and confidence
  • Dealing with implicit bias

In alternating weeks, the students gathered in small groups to talk about what they learned from their mentors.

“This way, they learned even more because every mentor has a different experience,” Kaletunc said.  

At the end of the pilot program, both the mentors and students said the structure that Kaletunc provided was key to its success.

About half the students were majors in Kaletunc’s home department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and the others majored in mechanical, chemical, environmental and industrial systems engineering. All were undergraduate students within three semesters of graduation.

One of the students, Erica McGriff, said she almost didn’t consider participating because she was already involved with Ohio State’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, but Kaletunc reached out to her, and she decided to give it a try.“I hoped to learn how to deal with different challenges in a real career setting,” McGriff said. “My mentor had a lot of insight about how to deal with the actual challenges and conflicts you might face in the real world.”

McGriff, who has already accepted a job offer with Pepsi in Indianapolis, said she appreciated the frank and open discussions with both her mentor and the other students in the program.

“There are going to be times when you have to prove yourself, or at least you feel like you do, being a woman in the engineering field. It can be a boys’ club, and you have to learn how to deal with that without becoming defensive. If that happens, I learned how to approach it. That’s pretty helpful.”

McGriff’s mentor, Channon Cohen, has been with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for 20 years, and she especially appreciated being able to share her experience with McGriff.

“She’s a double-minority and so am I,” said Cohen, an environmental engineer. “There are special things I could impart to her based on my experiences.

“There’s so much academia just can’t teach you. I wasn’t given a lot of guidance coming out of grad school. I was not prepared for the real world.”

Cohen said one piece of guidance she hoped to get across is how important it is to have a career goal before or soon after starting at a workplace.

“That will dictate your behavior,” she said. “If you go into the work environment and you know that someday you want to be CEO, it will affect how you network, the people you seek out as mentors and the opportunities you look for.

“Women, especially those working in a profession dominated by men, need to be able to make known that they want to be elevated, and that they have the credentials for that. Go in and let it be known that you want to move up, that you have big plans for your life. The way I was raised, the idea that a woman could go in and say something like that would be a bit presumptuous, prideful or arrogant. But you can do it in a respectful way, to show that you’re interested in moving up and interested in the organization.”

Kaletunc said she plans to continue the program as an academic course next year, expanding it to reach 25 or 26 students in its first year. That’s still just a fraction of the roughly 300 women engineering graduates per year, but it’s a start.

“The biggest challenge is finding individual mentors,” Kaletunc said. “But I am encouraged because at the end of the pilot program, every one of the mentors said they would be willing to participate in the program again. In fact, one of the mentors said the program helped her re-evaluate her own career and her own goals. It’s really very exciting.”

In addition, Kaletunc has had inquiries from the University of Cincinnati and Texas Tech about the program, and has submitted a National Science Foundation pre-proposal for potential funding to expand the project.

Kaletunc credits her collaborators with supporting the creation of the pilot program, including David Williams, dean of the College of Engineering and her mentor in the ELATE program; Scott Shearer, her department chair; and Ana C. Berrios Allison, associate director of Career Counseling and Support Services in Ohio State’s Office of Student Life.

In addition, both Bruce McPheron, interim executive vice president and provost of the university, and Ron Hendrick, interim dean of CFAES, expressed strong support for the project.

Cohen said Kaletunc herself deserves much credit.

“I’m glad she had the foresight to create the program,” Cohen said. “It’s very valuable and much needed.”



CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Gonul Kaletunc

Erica McGriff

Channon Cohen