Pairing girls with mentors early on paves the way for a brighter future

Before Katherine Johnson began calculating trips to the moon for NASA, she had mentors.

Johnson, whose story was immortalized in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” was inspired to turn her knack for numbers into a groundbreaking career as a research mathematician by two mentors. The first was her geometry teacher Angie Turner King, who nurtured the preteen’s interest in math and modeled what was possible for her. Another mentor was Johnson’s college professor W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, who created advanced math courses for her and encouraged her to push beyond the boundaries of her race and gender. These mentors helped change the trajectory of Johnson’s life and enabled her to break into a field with few women at the time, where she made history for her contributions to space exploration.

This is just one example of the power of mentorship. Research shows the many benefits mentoring can have for girls (and boys), from improved school attendance and lower dropout rates to higher rates of graduation, college enrollment and higher aspirations overall. But the greatest impact of mentoring comes from showing students what’s possible for their lives. 

Ask any little girl what she wants to be when she grows up, and you’ll hear a variety of answers: teacher, nurse, dancer, veterinarian, etc. But how often do you hear answers like research scientist, engineer, computer programmer or company CEO? This may be because girls envision their future based on the role models they can see. If they can see it, they’re more likely to believe they can be it. 

Closing the Gender Gap with Mentors 

Though women have made tremendous strides in the workplace, even since Katherine Johnson’s day, they still lag behind men in salaries and opportunities.

Women make about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, with women of color making even less. They are also broadly underrepresented in many senior leadership roles across industries, according to a 2020 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and While the number of female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list reached a record high of 41 this year, women make up just eight percent of those leading Fortune 500 companiesand only two are Black women. 

Lack of ambition is not to blame. Women are more likely than men to aspire to be in management roles, but they have fewer sponsors in the C-suite championing their advancement, the McKinsey study notes. 

This brings us back to mentors. They are key to leveling the playing field for girls of all backgrounds and closing the gender gap that keeps so many capable young women from advancing up the career ladder. 

A study of female engineering students showed that those who were assigned female mentors experienced more belonging, motivation and confidenceand were more likely to remain in the field, according to the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). Individuals with mentors typically go on to perform better at their jobs, earn higher salaries and land promotions faster than those without them, other studies show. 

Linda Hope, who runs a successful business for Beautycounter, which sells safer skin care and cosmetics directly to women, credits her success as an entrepreneur to the wisdom and guidance she gained from her mentors. 

“One of the greatest values of surrounding yourself with great mentors is that you can learn in less than an hour what it took them a lifetime to figure out,” she says. 

Value of Starting Early 

Mentorship needs to happen long before women enter the workplace. At Play Like a Girl, we believe it should start as early as middle school when girls are beginning to form their opinions about the world around them and contemplate what they want to do in the future. 

This is especially important for girls from less affluent backgrounds, who often lack the opportunities others have to network with successful individuals who can help them jump-start their careers. 

Whatever their background or education, one thing is certain: The sooner girls are exposed to and have a chance to learn from positive female role models across a variety of roles and fields, the better prepared they will be to think imaginatively and limitlessly about their future and tackle the obstacles they encounter with confidence and courage.

Mentoring is a cornerstone of our work at Play Like a Girl. Over the past 16 years, we have reached over 25,000 girls through mentorship, summer camps, field trips, sports outings, virtual activities and more. Through our Meet + Mentor program, we match middle school girls (ages 10-13) with women working in STEM+ jobs throughout all industries. Our mentors support these girls in their efforts to develop the academic and life skills necessary to succeed. The latest Meet + Mentor program just wrapped up at the end of May, and we’re eager to share the stories of the girls and women who were impacted by the power of mentorship, so stay tuned for more.

In Tulsa, Memphis or Houston/Katy this June or July? Then, register middle school girls in your life for our free Meet + Mentor day camps in a city near you. Visit to sign up today.