Case Study: Advancing Early Career Women in Higher Education through Mentoring and Small Grants in Asia and Africa
A strong higher education ecosystem is critical to a country's economic growth and development. Globally, though women make up an increasing percentage of university students, there is still a large gender gap in the STEM workforce. USAID’s 2023 Gender Policy highlights this problem, noting that “The lower rates of women—as well as of gender-diverse individuals—in influential research, policymaking, and funding-related positions limits their contributions to scientific advances in international development and increases the risk of gender bias in international development research” (pg. 47).
To approach this challenge and identify ways to improve the longevity and success of women in science, in 2018 USAID piloted the Women in Science Mentoring Program (WSMP) under the broader Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) project. For two cycles in 2018 and 2020, WSMP provided mentoring support, training, and the opportunity to compete for seed funding to 55 early career women scientists and 18 female mentors from their research institutions. Using participant surveys, annual reports, and participant interviews, this case study reviews WSMP to understand the program’s successes and the lessons learned for future programming.
Quantitative and qualitative evidence suggests benefits of WSMP both for mentors and mentees, with mentees reporting positive impacts of WSMP on their work output and professional development. Participants applied for and received promotions, negotiated for reduced teaching hours, additional research funding, and equipment; and generally saw improved professional development. Beyond negotiation skills, mentees reported an increased affinity for self-advocacy, an expansion of their professional networks, an increase in work-life balance management, and improved time management.
Across WSMP Cycles 1 and 2, nearly all mentors noticed positive changes in their mentees. Mentors reported an increase in mentee work quality, and boosts in confidence to advocate for themselves and their research. Mentors also stated that their mentees became more focused on their careers while also gaining greater work-life balance skills. The program was beneficial to mentors as well, with all believing the program helped their own professional growth.
In addition to mentoring and training, WSMP participants had an opportunity to apply for seed grants. Seed grant recipients suggested that the grants provided opportunities for professional development and promotion of their research (including the opportunity to leverage the small grant into larger international grants), and some seed grant recipients used their grant funds to jump-start mentoring programs at their own institutions.