In the mid-1990s, COSWL (the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics, a committee of the Linguistic Society of America) and other LSA members became concerned about the fact that mentoring opportunities for women in our field were not consistently or widely available. It was clear that women's mentoring experiences had been varied: some women had had positive, others negative experiences, while for a third group, no mentoring opportunities had been available at all. In 1995, COSWL sponsored a series of weekly mentoring workshops (primarily for young female linguists) at the LSA's summer institute at the University of New Mexico. These workshops were originally designed by Justine Cassell (then a COSWL member). The 1995 workshops were so successful that they have repeated at the LSA summer institutes in subsequent years.

After the first summer's workshops, it was suggested that the overwhelmingly positive response indicated the need for an ongoing project. A task force was formed, consisting of Megan Crowhurst and Mary Bucholtz (then COSWL members) and Monica Macaulay (then a volunteer, and later a member of COSWL, 1998-2001). The task force designed the original WILMA program, as described below, issuing a first call for participants in October, 1996. WILMA operated successfully, making a total of 80 matches in less than three years of operation (until mid-1999), when the directors became unable to continue devoting the time and energy required to sustain it on a volunteer basis.

WILMA, in its original format, paired junior women with relatively more senior female volunteers at different institutions, creating ongoing mentoring relationships. Our goal was for the mentee and the mentor to move up the ranks in tandem (although we realized that new arrangements might be necessary as situations changed). We believed then (and still do) that mentoring is most useful when the seniority gap between the mentor and mentee is limited to only one level of advancement, so that the mentor remembers as clearly as possible what it is like to be at the mentee's career stage. Our default pairings, therefore, were:

  • Undergraduate - Graduate student
  • Graduate student (pre-dissertation) -- Graduate student (advanced)
  • Graduate student (advanced) - Assistant Professor or postdoc
  • Assistant Professor - Associate Professor
  • Associate Professor - Full Professor

The pairings were flexible, however, to allow for women who preferred a different rank of mentor or mentee than that indicated above, as well as for women who did not fall into these categories (women in industry or independent scholars, for example).

All women who self-identified as being in linguistics were eligible to participate in WILMA. The qualifying criteria that we listed were broad, and included being a student or having a degree in linguistics (or a related field like Linguistic Anthropology, French linguistics, or Psycholinguistics), membership in the LSA and/or other professional organizations, and so on. Women in countries other than the U.S. were welcome to join, although we cautioned them that it might be more difficult to make appropriate matches in such cases. Our goal in designing the eligibility statement for WILMA was to make it as inclusive as possible.

In our brochure, we provided a list of possible issues that a mentor could help a mentee with, as follows: choosing a graduate program; selecting an advisor; preparing for prelims, orals, or other program requirements; writing abstracts and giving conference talks; applying for fellowships or grants; writing and surviving the dissertation; composing a CV; applying and interviewing for jobs; preparing for a campus visit; jobs outside academia; planning and teaching classes; publishing articles; writing a book; getting a book published; the tenure and promotion process; making a mid-career move; time management; difficult colleagues; networking; and other survival skills. It was left to each mentor-mentee pair to decide which issues were relevant. The goal was for the more senior woman to bring the more junior one along, both by discussion and example.

In 2001, after a hiatus of almost two years, Monica Macaulay decided to apply for a National Science Foundation Advance Program grant to turn WILMA into an internet program. She, Mary Bucholtz, and Megan Crowhurst submitted the proposal in April 2001 and were awarded the funding in September of that year. Jean Turman was hired as project assistant to design the webpages and Sara Ziemendorf was hired as computer consultant for the original site. In 2007 Noah Diewald was hired to update the site and make it comply with the accessibility standards. This, then, is the program that you see before you now.