Women in agriculture connect students and researchers

Mentorship program fosters relationships between students, professors and industry

Graphic by Dallin Chicoine, staff

The faculty of agricultural and food sciences is hosting its mentorship program for a fifth year. The program is run by Siobhan Maas, program coordinator, and Annemieke Farenhorst, professor in the department of soil science and the associate vice-president (research) for the University of Manitoba.

The program assigns two mentors in the field of agricultural sciences, one from industry and one from academia, to each student. Mentees are largely undergraduate students who are early in their careers. Mentors provide career guidance and emotional support to these students as they navigate their education.

“The agriculture mentorship program facilitates beneficial relationships between students (mentees) and mentors,” said Farenhorst in a statement.

“These relationships can be extremely impactful and provide students with a dependable resource to connect with and call upon whenever they need advice or just an ear.”

The mentorship program was started in 2017 when Farenhorst held the position of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council chair for women in science and engineering in the Prairie region. She envisioned the program as a supportive and empowering network for women in a male-dominated field.

Recent studies have shown that experiences of gender bias pervade STEM fields. Women may first experience bias or discrimination during their undergraduate studies. According to Farenhorst, there is a relatively equal gender representation within the student body in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences. However, this is not true of the staff, which is largely male. The shortage of women in leadership roles can result in a lack of role models for women, which can have a negative effect on job satisfaction and retention of women in academia and industry.

One proven way to encourage women to persist in STEM fields is through mentorship. Institutions that prioritize formal mentoring options have been found to have higher rates of participation and retention for women.

The role of the mentor is to advise mentees on how to navigate the explicit and implicit rules of social interactions in science. Mentees learn networking skills and practice public speaking, and in a time when most conferences are virtual, that experience can be hard to come by.

“What I find key is that this program connects mentees with a mentor who is committed to providing that leadership,” Farenhorst said.

“Students/mentees never have to feel that they are encroaching. They know that the program is designed to provide them with a dependable relationship that is committed on both sides.”

Participants have said the benefits of the program are mutual. Mentees appreciate the career-related support and guidance they receive, while mentors receive satisfaction from the relationships they build with both students and colleagues.

“Mentors enjoy the opportunity to connect and find they also benefit by learning from the mentees — it is about being part of a community of women supporting women,” said Farenhorst.

“It’s all about forming connections,” agreed Maas.

Maas describes the program as participant-led, relying on feedback from both mentors and mentees to guide changes to the program every year. Activities have largely consisted of casual gatherings, meeting in pubs or for dinner. These included virtual craft nights and rapid-fire question periods, where participants have two minutes to discuss a topic and then move on to the next person.

The informal nature of the meetings is necessary to break social awkwardness, leading to more meaningful interaction between mentor and mentee. Trust is critical for mentor-mentee relationships so that students can ask for help and advice without fear of judgment or criticism.

Funding for the program will end in 2022, but the organizers would like to continue into 2022-23. To be able to do so, students must demonstrate a demand for the program.

Those who are interested in participating in the program next year should email Maas at Siobhan.Maas@umanitoba.ca.