Female Academics Benefit Young Scientists

The academic world wasn’t immune to the summer of social unrest, which started with the outrage at the death of George Floyd and spread across the world in 2020. The most powerful research institutions, publications and academics in the world put out messages of support and declared commitments to diversity. None more so than Nature and its fleet of specialist journals, a publication in which can crown many hard years of work at the laboratory bench.
An institution held in such high regard should set the highest standards in its field, both academic and ethical.

However, in November 2020, with the cries for social equality and the Black Lives Matter movement waning in the popular news cycle, inequality resurfaced once again. Published in Nature Communications, an article calls into question the validity of female academics in nurturing young, emerging scientists. The paper is innocently entitled ‘The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance’. But it doesn’t take long to make clear its main finding: ‘We find that increasing the proportion of female mentors is associated not only with a reduction in post-mentorship impact of female protégés, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors.’ This understandably caused uproar within the science community.

Mentorship is the guidance that an experienced person provides in a company or institution. In the science field, mentorship focuses on giving budding scientists technical knowledge, practical skills and further academic opportunity. In a field where it has taken so long to see female academics achieve the most senior positions, their ability to educate and bring through the generation was being smeared. Furthermore, the article rubbishes female senior academics’ effect on empowering young female scientists to pursue a career in academia. How had any methodology captured the complexities of mentorship and the undeniable barriers faced by women in science academia? 

The problematic nature of this paper is not limited to its conclusions; it permeates through its methodology, data and results. As I read this article and the varying responses, three main issues stuck out to me:

1. Assumptions made about mentorship

This paper assumes mentorship between ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ scientist through shared authorship on a paper. There are many reasons why co-authorship occurs and ‘only a small portion of times this is due to mentoring’, as one of the article’s reviewers points out. This manuscript, therefore, is not about mentorship but rather co-authorship. Mentorship takes many forms and, by reducing mentorship to co-authorship, the article’s metric doesn’t capture the majority of mentor-mentee relationships. 

2. Assumptions made about success

This paper measures success by analysing the number of the citations a mentor/mentee’s publication has and, on that basis, the impact a scientist’s research has on the community. Is this the only measure of success of a mentor-mentee relationship? I think it isn’t. Many mentorships fall outside this metric of success, which this article ignores.

The real question from this data should be: why do female academics get lower average impact scores? To answer that question, we should consider the role of systematic bias. Reviewers and commenters have also highlighted that the article fails to negate the ‘Big Shot’ effect:  higher-prestige departments are more likely to train higher-impact researchers, who are in turn more likely to go on to have greater number of citations. Historically, these higher-prestige departments are more likely to have less female representation on their faculty, so those future high-impact researchers will have male co-authors or, in the language of the article, ‘mentors’. This paper fails to truly address this and has little room for institution-to-institution variation.

3. Societal and structural Issues

All of the issues with this paper really pivot around this one issue: the lack of consideration and account for the historical structures that have prevented equal representation and female academics from achieving the same as their male counterparts. Several omissions stand out.

  • There is no account for the fact that, historically, a male mentor is more likely to have greater privileges in the university, more connections to other institutions and, as a result, greater ability to offer more support to a mentee.
  • There is no comment on lack of female representation in academic leadership positions and how this leads to fewer publications with ‘senior’ female figures as co-authors. Many of the female mentors that young scientists encounter may not be senior academics; this doesn’t make their contribution to development insignificant.
  • The paper defines a junior scientist as a person in the seven years following their first publication and a senior scientist as a person after that time period. Research has shown that female academics take a greater amount of time to progress in their career, meaning that the seven-year cut-off is biased against those academics when it comes to publication number and impact.

The paper draws its conclusions based on a historical academic structure in which ‘the old boys club’ called (and, to some extent, still call) the shots, side-lining female representation, especially in senior academic roles. For the women who did achieve such roles, they did so by overcoming significant barriers. The common phrase ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’ rings true in academia, with opportunities earmarked for pre-selected candidates, publications given a helping hand through by a friendly editor, perpetuating a network of privilege that self-replicates over time.  In addition, unconscious bias is a real problem in the scientific world. While we have come a long way in overcoming obvious bias (e.g. by implementing anonymous reviewing of papers), job references are still more likely to portray women as more ‘helpful’ and ‘caring’ than men, who are typically described as ‘innovative’ and ‘exemplary’.

Nature Communications did note the critical response to the paper on the day of publication. Two days later, the journal released an Editor’s Note: ‘Readers are alerted that this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Those criticisms were targeted to the authors’ interpretation of their data that gender plays a role in the success of mentoring relationships between junior and senior researchers, in a way that undermines the role of female mentors and mentees. We are investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.’ There are many unanswered questions about how an article, which so clearly undermines the roles of women in academia, came to be published. But, with another recent article published in the chemistry journal Angewandte arguing that diversity actually harms organic synthesis research, there is a hollowness to the truth behind those messages of equality that the science publishing world put out in June. A saving grace did come from science twitter in the days following, with a thread encouraging male scientists to praise their female mentors throughout their careers. Heart-warming stories of past mentors flooded in. While this is purely anecdotal data, it was hard to ignore the overwhelming feeling that this paper has missed the mark.

My own (early stage) science career has been hall marked by great mentors who are women. While they were not my direct supervisors or lead academics, they passed on invaluable knowledge, tricks of the trade and solid career advice. They were sometimes my peers, such as Jessica Birt, who showed me the ropes in my first ever research project looking at multicellular biosensors as part of an iGEM project. They were post-docs, like Dr Alice Banks, Dr Colette Whitfield and Dr Hope Adamson. The former two guided me through my undergraduate dissertation and applying for PhDs, while the latter helped me through the first couple of years of my PhD and who, I can safely say, I couldn’t have got to where I am without. They were sometimes senior researchers, including Dr Wendy Birt, who taught me all the lab tricks of the trade; what she didn’t know about molecular biology methods wasn’t worth knowing. I have never shared a publication with any of those scientists, but that doesn’t erase the effect that they have had on my publications and will have in my future.

The authors and reviewers of this article in Nature Communications were right. Mentorship is an important yet underdiscussed topic. Let’s make sure we focus our efforts on acknowledging ‘success’ by all. On how best to capture the true impact of a mentor. And, finally, on addressing the entrenched barriers to gender equality in science academia before we draw conclusions from further ‘research’.

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