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  • Fourth-year graduate student Giuliana Viglione (left) and her mentee, first-year Cora Went (right) walk through a hallway.
    Fourth-year graduate student Giuliana Viglione (left) and her mentee, first-year Cora Went (right).
    Credit: Caltech
02/15/2017 17:12:58

Caltech Women Mentoring Women

On a sunny Tuesday outside of Caltech's Red Door Café, two women with brightly dyed hair are deep in conversation. The two—Giuliana Viglione, a fourth-year graduate student in environmental science, and Alicia Lanz, a sixth-year graduate student in physics—are part of Caltech's Women Mentoring Women (WMW) program. They are discussing a topic both are passionate about—the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

"There's definitely a numbers problem," says Viglione. "In a field where labs might only have three students and a postdoc, it's common for you to be the only woman. WMW has really helped me connect with others in my field and given me an avenue to talk about issues I can't necessarily bring up with my male colleagues."

The WMW program began in 2002 as a way to connect female postdoctoral scholars and graduate students looking for career advice. It has since grown to include staff members and undergraduates. To become a mentor or mentee, women fill out an application that includes a short biographical section and questions about priorities—such as wanting to be matched with someone in the same field or with common outside interests. The applications are reviewed by an advisory board made up of staff, faculty, and graduate and undergraduate students. In its first year, the program matched 11 graduate students with postdoc mentors. Today, the program has grown to 89 mentor-mentee pairs.

"The foundation of WMW is the individual, one-to-one connection that is fostered between mentor and mentee," says Erin-Kate Escobar, assistant director of Women's Services and Programs for the Caltech Center for Diversity and director of the Women Mentoring Women program. "These individual mentoring meetings are where the matches discuss academic, professional, and personal issues; set and work toward goals; problem solve; and celebrate successes."

Additionally, the program hosts a monthly faculty lunchtime series as well as workshops on topics such as body language and confidence, which are open to the campus community. WMW participants are also invited to participate in work-life balance activities such as hikes and a book club.

"For me, having a mentor is about representation—seeing people who I could imagine being, doing things that I might imagine myself doing," says Lanz. "Seeing people who are similar in age to me was really helpful and gave me the sense that I, too, can do this. There's also an unexpected benefit of being part of the program—you get really good friends out of it."

Women Mentoring Women accepts applications year-round and uses an inclusive definition of "woman," welcoming transwomen, genderqueer women, and nonbinary people.

Written by Lori Dajose