How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Beyond gossip girls: College women talk math and science

June 23, 2010: 11:34 AM ET

by Jessica Shambora

Yesterday morning a group of 22 college women gathered at the Time & Life building in New York City for breakfast. Not surprisingly, they were abuzz with chatter. But the topic du jour wasn't the next Twilight film, or the latest reality show gossip. What got these women going at such an early hour? Math and science.

"I don't get to talk about science with other girls very often," said Katie Rooney, a recent graduate from Ohio State with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences. "My friends tell me, 'Katie, we don't want to hear about that.'"

Nikki Delrosso, a senior majoring in Computer Science at the University of Oregon, jumped to agree. "At my school it tends to be 20 guys and one girl, with me being the girl."

Rooney, Delrosso and their fellow math and science fanatics are participants in a mentoring program, sponsored by the National Math + Science Initiative, ExxonMobil (XOM) and Fortune, now in its second year.

In case you need a reminder, the statistics are grim when it comes to keeping girls engaged with math and science. Today women make up 46% of the workforce in the U.S., but hold just 26% of engineering, science and technology jobs. There's no question that those numbers have to change if the U.S. hopes to remain a global leader.

But as the saying goes, you can't be what you can't see, so this program pairs accomplished college women with female executives at Fortune 500 companies who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. The students correspond with their mentors throughout the five-month program, participate in webinars, and visit their mentors on site at the end of the spring semester. At the program's conclusion in NYC, the students finally get to meet one another and share lessons learned. Here are a few:

Nancy Tseng, a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in chemical engineering, explained how her mentor advised her to consider company culture during interviews: "She told me to think about the environment at the workplace, not just that I'd be working in R&D or on certain projects." (Tseng's mentor, Carol Dudley-Williams,  is a senior vice president at Dow Chemical (DOW)).

Katie Niehaus, a recent Stanford grad with a degree in biochemical engineering, was relieved to know that there was time to explore different roles: "My mentor explained that a lot of execs have jumped around and I don't have to figure it all out right away."

For Michelle Jiang, a Caltech senior majoring in mechanical engineering and business, some of the best advice turned out to be less pragmatic: "We talked about the importance of defining success for yourself, because it's different from person to person." (Jiang's mentor, Margaret Wear, is a senior vice president and chief actuary at Prescription Solutions, part of UnitedHealth Group (UNH)).

Finally, Meredith Gibson, a chemical engineering grad from Iowa State, got the message from her mentor (Brenda Thornton, HR manager at ADM (ADM)) that she needed to keep talking about her passion for math and science, especially with the next generation of girls: "Brenda told me how important it is to develop and empower other women." Thanks to this program and their mentors, Meredith and her peers seem prepared to keep the conversation going.

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