Female mentors share their WISDOM

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Andrea Wallette, founder of Women in Science and the Department of Mathematics (WISDOM) and a self-described tomboy, has always felt comfortable studying in a male-dominated faculty.

Still, she stresses the importance of providing outreach programs for young women intimidated by the lack of female presence in science and engineering.

In 2001, Wallette launched WISDOM, a mentorship initiative pairing first-year women with upper-year women in their program. The program’s goal is empowering female students by offering a support system and providing positive female role models.

The program has grown from 18 members to nearly 250 in 2005. Currently, there are 100 mentors, executive members and students involved.

Wallette says female science students often don’t have women to look up to in their field.

“A friend of mine dropped into English because she felt she didn’t have any role models,” Wallette says. “She was intimidated by the fact that we’d never had a female professor in chemistry and that we were in a program of all guys.”

Wallette says the solution is offering a female support system early on to encourage women to pursue non-traditional fields and stick with them.

“I believe that interactions with mentors such as myself will encourage more young women to head down scientific career paths,” says Sheila M. Macfie, assistant professor of biology. “In my opinion, the most effective way for students and professors to connect in this way is through organizations such as WISDOM.”

Low enrolment of women in science and mathematics isn’t necessarily a problem, Wallette says, but young women shouldn’t pursue stereotypically “female” fields of study without considering other opportunities.

She also points to the positive impact of women in male-dominated fields.

“[Women] bring a different way of looking at a problem and it’s nice to have that different perspective.”

Wallette stresses WISDOM isn’t a “man-hating program.”

“It’s just an atmosphere that allows you to talk to other females in your program, but we’re not exclusive to girls at all,” Wallette says. “If a guy wants to join, that’s fine " we actually have four male members.

“It’s all about being supportive of women in science.”

Wallette says male support for the program " from both students and professors " has been great.

Fred Longstaffe, a longtime WISDOM supporter and former dean of science at Western, feels the program is extremely beneficial.

“It very quickly became clear to me that this group comprised a very important network for our women students in the Faculty of Science... to support each other in very meaningful ways,” Longstaffe says.

Wallette has big plans for WISDOM’s future. She wants to see it expand to other universities and high schools.

She also hopes to connect more women through new mentoring programs " professors with graduate students, graduate students with undergraduate students, and so on.

For now, Wallette is satisfied with her program’s accomplishments.

“[WISDOM] has helped at least one person and that’s what I wanted,” she says. “Anything else is just icing on the cake.”

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