Mentoring Girls and Young Women Through a Compassionate “Lean-In” Culture of Practice

by | Aug 10, 2020 | ETS Instructors

Women Mentorship

This blog post, authored by one of our amazing instructors Naomi Harm, was originally published on the website Big Deal Media. 

Do you remember dreaming about your career hopes, dreams, and fears as an elementary or middle school student, and how these thoughts may someday impact whom you may become when you grow up? For some of us, we can recall these memories just like they occurred yesterday. Yet for others—like myself—it has been almost five decades to reconnect the learning dots of the how and why I have landed in my science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) leadership career. Can you recall that pivotal learning moment in your life when a compassionate individual influenced your goals and supported your efforts to pursue learning passions?

Pivotal Learning Moment

My pivotal learning moment took place in Mrs. Becker’s 3rd/4th grade classroom in northeast Iowa. She was a very kind and compassionate educator that understood the importance of personalized learning and differentiated instruction to meet the learning needs of each child. I was a very busy and active young girl, and my attention span was all of five seconds. Yet Mrs. Becker figured out early on to use my busy energy for educational good. I was the one that could always figure out the technology and troubleshoot a solution to a problem from a very young age and was appointed on many occasions to set up, run, and put away the film strip projector for our class. I also had many opportunities to set up the STEM labs, student-centered rotation stations, and mentor others with setting up the science, literacy, and math learning experiences.

New Teaching Hat = Career and Life Coach

My story has been transformed by a compassionate teacher, who not knowingly at the time was wearing the inspirational teaching hat of a “career and life coach.” These experiences allowed me to feel safe, take risks, ask many questions, and build confidence by learning through play, tinkering, and making experiences. It empowered me to share my voice, ideas of visual thinking, frustrations in learning, and new knowledge as a peer coach alongside my classmates, all while building resilience as a critical life skill.

Why Girls Lose Interest in STEM

If I would have not had the influential and compassionate Mrs. Becker in my life, I truly believe my career learning outcome would have been far different than it is today. I most likely would have lost interest in STEM and settled for a job that was not as fulfilling.

Did you know that by the end of middle school, more girls lose interest in STEM activities and career pathways? Why is this? Current research and data lead to important answers:

  • Some classrooms and workplaces undervalue opinions from women.
  • There is a lack of access to hands-on STEM learning experiences and equitable access to STEM materials and resources.
  • There are often negative stereotypes about intellectual abilities and “being nerdy.”
  • There is a lack of STEM growth mindsets and lack of modeling by educators and parents.
  • There is a limited number of ethnic women role models in the STEM and computer science workforce.
  • There are very few women mentors as educators in middle school and high school STEM classrooms.

(Microsoft Research: Susy Choney, 2018):

Compassionate “Lean-In’” Culture of Practice

What educators can do now to make change is to afford ALL girls and young women with more opportunities to experience STEM as a compassionate “lean-in’” culture of practice. What this practice can look and feel like involves all of your students, and they must be prioritized to be at its central core of a learner-centered and invention literacy-focused classroom. It also means educators need to break the STEM stereotypes and identify, recognize, and change their own unconscious or implicit bias they may have with girls in STEM. Educators need to start this task very early in a young girl’s education and we all need to reach, connect, and mentor girls during their early childhood years. We need to provide students access to women STEM mentors, women role models, and women inspired activities to ensure all girls and young women can dream about and be active creators of their futures.

A strong foundation of empathy-based coaching must also be modeled and practiced daily to build a stronger community of collaborative learners amongst all male and female students. You need to discover how, why, and where your students learn best. Ask them what their perspectives are on a topic of interest, and what motivates them outside of their school day. You need to learn more about what your students are passionate about, and discuss how they can contribute to “think like a computer scientist and design like an engineer,” so they too can be a solutionist of making our world a better, safer, kinder place to thrive and live in as a community of learners.


Please remember that it was because of my compassionate and influential educator Mrs. Becker who inspired me professionally and personally throughout my life. Her influence has guided me to attain my STEM career goals. I have made a lifelong commitment to be the change in STEM education for all women. I will continue to mentor, motivate, and influence our next generation of girls and young women through a compassionate “Lean-In’” culture of practice.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, here is Naomi’s graduate course titled “Motivating Girls To “Lean In” To Pursue Passion-Driven Careers In STEM“.  Click the link to learn more and register!

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