Women physicists are often isolated at work. Just consider the numbers: 86 percent of American faculty physicists are male; 89 percent of PhD physicists working in the science and engineering industry are male; and it was just in 2012 that the number of physics PhDs earned by women reached even 20 percent. To increase the numbers of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), we must address the isolation associated with being such a small fraction of the field.

Good mentoring can help. A mentor helps you navigate your profession and engage more fully as a professional. However, finding mentors for underrepresented groups from those who have already navigated the same waters is daunting simply because of the numbers.

The traditional model of a senior professional advising a junior colleague is not workable for most female physicists–in academia only 8 percent of full physics professors are women. A model that does seem to work is to develop networks of peers mentoring each other. This is not a new idea–Ellen Daniell’s Every Other Thursday (Yale University Press, 2008) chronicles the 25-year history of what she calls a “scientific problem-solving group.”

We are members of a peer-mentoring network that grew out of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-ADVANCE project by Kerry Karukstis and others. ADVANCE is designed to promote the careers of women scientists in academia. This project, started in 2006, was aimed at tenured women chemists and physicists at primarily undergraduate institutions. Since the typical size of a physics department at this type of institution is four faculty members, and women make up only 16 percent of those faculty, it is not surprising that 47 percent of these institutions have no women faculty and that if there is a female faculty member in the physics department, she is the only one. Thus, we are often isolated.

Our network brought together five senior women physicists from across the country. We had all spent many years mentoring students and junior colleagues, but it had been years since any of us had had a formal mentor and we were skeptical of its utility. At our first meeting, we quickly realized how much we were missing. We found it incredibly helpful to talk with other women in similar situations professionally (small college politics, teaching, research and service demands) as well as personally (we each had children). After our first meeting in person, we Skyped every other week.

Initially we decided to examine our work on technical physics projects, as service roles, curricular projects and gender studies had pulled us out of what initially drew us to physics. We re-examined our priorities and while some of us re-focused on technical physics projects (taking a sabbatical at a National Laboratory), others of us decided the non-technical physics work was still the appropriate avenue for our professional development. Seven years later, four of the five of us are still meeting every other week via Skype and at least every 18 months in person (without grant funding to pay for the travel).

Why does it work? We have identified a number of elements that helped our network be successful:

  • Eating together: One of the grant requirements (that seemed initially very puzzling) was that meals were only reimbursed if we ate together. Of course, by eating together we got to know each other as individuals, not just as physicists. We continue to eat together when we meet–it is part of the fun to find the nearby independent coffee shop or bakery!
  • Credibility: NSF initially funded our group, so our institutions and departmental colleagues respect it.
  • Non-competitive: We are all in different sub-fields of physics and at different institutions, so we aren’t competing with each other for resources.
  • Give and take: In the course of one meeting, we each often find ourselves in both the role of mentor and advisee. It is very different than the experience we typically have of simply dispensing advice.
  • Similar experiences: We call our network a “Resonant Phenomenon.” When someone describes a situation at her institution, others usually know the experience. She doesn’t have to give a long back-story.
  • Whole selves: We have, from our first introductions, talked about our whole lives. We talk about the experience of being teachers, mentors and researchers as well as mothers, daughters and sisters. Work-life balance issues arise naturally in our conversations.

We have found this incredibly useful and think it is a model that can be extended to other scientific disciplines so that members of underrepresented groups can help one another navigate our own isolation and sense of “otherness.” Combating this isolation will help us retain talent in these disciplines and further strengthen the scientific enterprise.