Woman-to-woman mentoring could play a key role in boosting the chances of keeping female would-be engineers from dropping out of their studies, according to the results of a new study by an American social psychologist.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found young women studying engineering-related subjects felt “less anxious” and more motivated when they had female – but not male – mentors helping them.

The study, co-authored by Dasgupta’s PhD student Tara C Dennehy, concluded that none of the women students who were mentored by female peers working in the field and whose progress was monitored as part of the study dropped out during the first year of university.

“That number is spectacular because the first year of college is typically the time of greatest attrition from STEM majors,” said Dasgupta.

This compares with an 18 per cent dropout rate for women students with male mentors and 11 per cent for women with no mentors, the control group.

Women make up more than half of university students in the USA but hold only between 13 and 33 per cent of bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, computer and physical sciences.

Engineering is notable, they add, “for having one of the lowest proportions of women among all fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

The results of the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, showed having a female mentor maintained young women's aspirations to pursue engineering careers by “protecting their belonging and confidence”, the researchers said.

The benefits of mentoring are said to have lasted for two years, well after the intervention ended, during the window of highest attrition from STEM majors. Details appear in the current early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.