Starting a Women’s Leadership Mentoring Program

Business women in a meeting
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Co-Authored by Faculty and Staff at the University of Idaho
Vanessa Sielert, Professor and Director, Lionel Hampton School of Music
Katherine Himes, Director, McClure Center for Public Policy Research
Erin Chapman, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Family and Consumer Sciences
Kathryn Schiffelbein, Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach, College of Engineering



Starting a program of any type can be daunting. Doing so with little to no experience and resources may seem impossible. Yet the importance of this work and a shared vision brought us together to create a community for women to connect and thrive. We built the Athena Women’s Mentorship Program in autumn 2018 with the support of Athena, the professional women’s organization at the University of Idaho.

The intent of the Athena Mentorship Program is to promote and facilitate mentorship for women and/or female-identifying staff and faculty at all University of Idaho campuses. The program graduated its second cohort in December 2020 and launched its third cohort in January 2021, fully online.

The program follows a calendar year schedule, provides monthly formal gatherings and bi-weekly informal coffee chats for mentees with mentees and mentors with mentors, and requires that mentorship partners meet monthly based on their personal schedules. The year begins with a half-day retreat and concludes with a celebration certificate and pinning ceremony.

As the program facilitators, we have learned much during the first two years of the program’s life and have sought continuous improvement throughout, applying the lessons we have learned after each cohort to improve the next. Through this article, we wish to share our experiences with the goal of inspiring other institutions to forge ahead in their quest to develop women leaders within their organizations.


Step 1: Asking for institutional support

The Athena Professional Women’s Organization (Athena) at the University of Idaho, founded in 1987, promotes an inclusive and equitable climate for professional women at the University. Athena had a longstanding aspirational initiative to launch and support a women’s professional mentorship program. In the years leading up to the formation of the current program, Athena made several attempts to actualize this initiative in the form of working groups or one-off mentee-mentor pairings. Notably, these attempts saw high engagement among those identifying as needing or wanting mentoring; however, it was often difficult to find willing and available mentors to pair with these faculty and staff members, who were typically less experienced and had less tenure at the University.

In 2016 and early 2017, an iteration of a mentoring working group held a handful of meetings that were attended by early career faculty and staff. At these meetings, conversations focused on what was lacking in terms of a culture around mentoring at the University. Without solid direction, mentor experience, and institutional knowledge—and, lacking clout and buy-in from upper administration—there was little traction to begin a formal mentoring program. These working group members brought energetic enthusiasm and discussions of “what if” scenarios for an aspirational future of an improved mentoring culture. If anything, the working group provided strong evidence of need.

In the spring of 2017, the President’s Office asked Professor of Music Vanessa Sielert to participate in the restructuring of the American Council on Education (ACE) Idaho Women’s Network, which had been dormant for many years at the time. Athena adopted the Idaho ACE Women’s Network under its umbrella and welcomed Sielert as an additional board member. In this capacity, Sielert—in partnership with Athena current and former board members—was able to successfully lead efforts to establish presidential funding for the mentoring program.

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