Collaboration enriches us personally and professionally, especially for women who support each other in (often) male-dominated fields. This article discusses a vibrant model for a mentorship program that is being spearheaded by New England Women in Energy and the Environment (NEWIEE), a multidisciplinary organization for women practicing in the intersecting fields of energy and the environment. The NEWIEE Mentorship Program comprises two elements—Website Matchups and Circles. The Website Matchups portion of the Mentorship Program pairs experienced practitioners willing to give back as mentors with eager mentees, to facilitate robust relationships across disciplines and career paths and to foster learning and professional growth. In the Circles portion, NEWIEE sponsors small-group learning experiences on specific topics, where senior practitioners lead discussions, interactive role-plays, and experiential learning on specific topics of interest to our membership (e.g., résumé building, network skills, interviewing tips). This article describes how the Website Matchups portion of the Mentorship Program was formed, lessons learned in working with the mentors and mentees, and a summary of its participant reviews to date.
NEWIEE is a dynamic group of professional women joining together to explore new solutions to today’s challenges in the energy and environmental fields while helping to cultivate female leadership and advancement through collaboration, inspiration, and professional development.
The organization was founded in 2008, when a group of women came together to exchange ideas and experiences, and ultimately envisioned a space where women could easily meet others facing similar technical, career, and work-life balance questions and benefit from each other’s experiences. With that vision in mind, NEWIEE was born.
Today, NEWIEE has grown to become a force for women’s leadership with more than 500 members across the region, supported by corporate and other sponsors who recognize the value of helping to raise women’s voices and stature in our fields.
How the Mentorship Program Formed
In multiple polls across our membership, the need for mentoring opportunities came across as a top priority. The NEWIEE Board of Directors responded and formed the Mentorship Committee, charged with designing and piloting an effective and nimble mentoring program for our members. The committee is made up of volunteers who have a passion for wanting to give back to other women and provide opportunities to network and grow by facilitating mentoring relationships with senior women practitioners.
Mentorship Program—Website Matchups
For the Website Matchups portion of the Mentorship Program, NEWIEE developed a questionnaire link on its website with which to gather data from interested participants. This questionnaire is periodically made available to encourage women to sign up for the next round of matchups as mentors or mentees. The questions cover typical contact information, but they also ask potential mentors and mentees questions about their strengths, interests, areas of work experience, and goals for participating in a mentor-mentee relationship. Results of the questionnaires are tabulated and sorted, and the NEWIEE Mentorship Website Matchups Committee meets to make the mentor-mentee matches. Due to the relatively large response rates (upwards of 100 applicants per round), it takes several hours to thoughtfully cull the responses to make appropriate matches.
Once matches are agreed upon, the committee introduces the mentors and mentees to each other by email, attaching a code of conduct. This code of conduct lays out a suggested structure of engagement for successfully building a mentoring relationship (e.g., share bios, meet at least once face to face, set regular meetings or calls, let mentees drive the agenda). It was created from feedback responses during previous rounds of Website Matchups.
After an agreed-upon duration for the matchup (typically about six months), the mentors and mentees fill out feedback questionnaires for NEWIEE, to guide us on what worked and what didn’t work in the process, so that NEWIEE can continue to make improvements in our Website Matchups portion of our Mentorship Program.
The demand for women to find other women mentors in our energy and environment field is high. In the three rounds of matchups, potential mentees far outnumbered potential mentors, by as much as a 5 to 1 ratio. Therefore, one of NEWIEE’s biggest challenges has been to recruit enough mentors. To partially address this shortage of mentors in the short term, we are testing a peer-to-peer matchup where we introduce two mentees with synergistic goals and will see from our questionnaire results if they feel that relationship was beneficial to their career growth.
Another challenge to a robust mentor-mentee program is sheer demands on a participant’s time, such that one or both members of a match become nonresponsive and then the relationship does not develop, creating a disappointing experience for all involved. One of the common goals for our members is work-life balance, and they seek to learn tips on how to grow their careers while juggling a family. This challenge is often met with more telephone conversations, rather than face-to-face meetings, because our members are spread over a six-state area, and no one has time for extra travel. But this time-of-travel challenge is also a cause for mentorship failure, as relationships just can’t flourish as well without face-to-face meetings. To date, our members have not discussed successfully using Facetime or Skype as a substitute for meetings.
A significant challenge to NEWIEE is maintaining its committee volunteers for this program in light of the growing demand and number of participants. We regularly edit the questions in the sign-up questionnaire after each matchup round so that the sorting and tiering of respondents’ answers facilitates the matchup process, which takes hours to accomplish by our committee of volunteers. The goal is to fine-tune the online sign-up form such that the matching process becomes a systemized sorting process, which then would be reviewed and adjusted by the volunteer committee.
Despite the challenges, our participants have responded very positively to date to the NEWIEE Websites Matchup program. Below are some of the reviews to date:
Question: Did you find the mentoring relationship helpful?
From the responses to this question, NEWIEE learned that mentors feel that they get as much out of the relationship as the mentees. Comments from mentors about the “importance of perspectives on millennial goals” and “workplace culture issues from another generational perspective” remind us of the value of just facilitating communications among our generationally diverse members. Mentees continually express that the relationship helped them “learn to network better,” “better define their career path,” and “recognize that they are not alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed.” Some of our matchup pairs have chosen not to end their relationship even when the official matchup round ended, instead continuing to meet and grow their relationship.
Question: What worked well for you in this Mentoring Process?
Out of 30 written responses, mentors (blue bars) and mentees (orange bars) selected these attributes of the Mentorship Program that worked well for them. Because there were more than 50 participants in that matchup round, NEWIEE acknowledges the challenge in getting its participants to provide feedback—about 65 percent of mentors returned their questionnaires, while only 30 percent of mentees returned their questionnaires. Mentees, in their comments, continue to ask for guidance and structure in how to drive a mentoring relationship. One of the greatest challenges to NEWIEE is to continue to refine our matchup process such that there is compatibility to the match. About 50 percent of our mentors selected compatibility as being a positive in their mentoring experience, compared with about 30 percent of mentees.
Question: How can we improve your mentoring matchup experience?
Mentors (blue bars) and mentees (orange bars) provided input on further refinements to the matchups program. In response to these inputs, NEWIEE has lengthened each mentoring round (the current one in process is seven months), doubled its time in calling for sign-ups, and added a code of conduct to the program that is more explicit about expectations regarding level of effort by the mentor-mentee pairs. There is a tension in balancing the demands from the mentees with the willingness of the mentors to commit. For these reasons, we have rejected to date the concept of an online matchup where mentees self-select mentors from published bios.
All in all, though, the Website Matchups portion of the Mentorship Program appears to be fulfilling a need and is thriving within NEWIEE.
Question: Would you be willing to extend your current mentor-mentee relationship?
When asked whether they would be willing to continue the relationship, the response of the mentors and mentees is overwhelmingly “yes,” so we must be doing something right! NEWIEE will continue to fine-tune its Website Matchups program to meet the needs of women seeking other women mentors in the energy and environment fields.
Muriel Robinette, P.G., is director and chair of NEWIEE’s Mentorship Committee and senior consultant with GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., in Bedford, New Hampshire. Jacqueline Ashmore, PhD, is director and president of NEWIEE and executive director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, in Boston, Massachusetts.
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