A wave of controversy and outrage followed the recent publication of a study by AlShebi et al. from the New York University of Abu Dhabi on November 17th. In their Nature Communications paper, the authors analyzed 3 million mentor–protégé pairs to assess the impact of mentorship quality on the future scientific career of protégés. In addition, the gender of both mentors and mentees was analyzed as a potential factor affecting the quality of such mentorships.
The study found that increasing the number of female mentors was associated with a reduction in post-mentorship impact (fewer articles published) by female mentees. Likewise, a decrease in citations of the papers published by female-female mentor pairs was reported during the mentorship period. It concluded by saying that "opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career" and that current diversity policies should be revisited.
Shortly after its release, a myriad of scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds expressed their concerns and/or disagreements on social media about the interpretation of the data, claiming the paper amplified every bias experienced by female academics nowadays. Unsurprisingly, two days later, the journal indicated the paper was under investigation. Finally, a bit over a month after its publication, the paper was retracted on December 21st. The authors attributed the retraction to issues in the validation of 'key measures' identified by the reviewers. The journal itself added that this experience reinforced their commitment to equity and inclusion in research, and in support, they will be launching further initiatives to support female scientists.
Despite being a relatively large study, most of the criticism was directed towards the methodology and criteria used in the study, with emphasis on two particular aspects: the use of co-authorships as a measure for informal mentorship and the use of scientific publications (or citations of those publications) as a metric for success.
The other side of the equation
After its release, several articles collecting the opinion of experts and established scientists in the field have been released. But, what about the opinion of the other side of the equation: the mentees and protégés? To gain insight into junior scientists' experiences and opinions on the impact of mentorships in their careers, I conducted interviews with researchers or professionals in the early stage of their careers.
Pina Knauff, Dr. rer.nat/ Life Sciences
Pina is a Postdoctoral researcher in the field of Molecular neurogenetics at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany. She has been active in the field for nine years, during which she has had five mentors. From those, two of them were women. When asked about the differences between having a male mentor over a female mentor, she explained that her female mentors were more empathetic and invested in providing guidance in her experience. Dr. Knauff has published five articles throughout her career, two of which were published under female mentorships.
Edna Gómez Fernández, PhD/ Economy
Edna is currently a freelance consultant. She completed her doctoral degree in social sciences at the University of Arizona, focusing on government and public policy and economics. Before leaving academia, she was active for 12 years. Throughout this time, she had only one female mentor out of seven. When choosing her mentors, gender was not a determinant factor for Edna. She believes that choosing a mentor who is an expert in the field that aims for efficient and professional communication is more important. As she did not publish under the supervision of a female mentor, Edna believes that the publishing process can benefit from having a male mentor. However, she also expressed that her last mentorships experiences - all of them with male mentors - influenced her decision to leave academia.
Ethiraj Ravindran, PhD/ Life Sciences
Ethiraj is a postdoctoral researcher also working at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. He has been active for 12 years in the field of Clinical Neuroscience. From his experience, he noticed that female mentors take their roles more seriously and that personal growth is also considered. He has felt more encouraged by his current female mentor and confirms that this experience played a significant role when deciding to continue in academia after his Ph.D.
Lucía Trías, MSc/ Design
Lucía is an independent design researcher. She recently completed her Master's degree at the Anhalt University in Dessau, Germany. During her 11 years of career, her first mentor - a female mentor – played a major role in Lucía's decision to further pursue a degree in academia. She thinks that in her area of research, decolonial design, having a male mentor can be detrimental as the female perspective mostly influences the field. 'In my experience, my female mentors exhibited more openness and a broader capacity to listen to critical thoughts without taking things personal,' she added. 'Accepting mistakes was also something that my male mentors were not good at, and I felt this had something to do with arrogance and feeling of superiority in their position.'
Success in academia: what matters the most?
Conversations regarding which factors define a successful academic path have long been on the table. Traditionally, academic success is measured in the form of research performance. Yet, career success is composed of two components: objective and subjective. The objective success is determined by the system, is measurable, and therefore more public. The subjective success is personal; it reflects one's own sense of career. A recent study by Sutherland K. A. found that personal success is changing among early-career academics, who report factors such as contribution to society or influencing students' lives as better metrics of success.
In this regard, interviewees also agree that the number of publications or citations should not be used to quantify success. Assessing the quality of mentorship based on the end product prioritizes the objective component of success. By doing this, AlShebli et al. neglected various other factors related to subjective success, including the current climate in academia that is strongly advocating for healthier working environments, where the 'publish or perish' vicious circle is not appealing for the upcoming generation of researchers.
Furthermore, success is often defined differently by men compared to women. Evidence also indicates that male scientists cite themselves more often than women. These, coupled with the reality that women leave academia earlier than men, contribute to the discrepancies in the number of publications between genders. Finally, 'the publishing process can be sometimes shifted by the journals' interest, and this should not diminish the quality of the submitted work' says Dr. Ravindran.
If correctly interpreted, this study could have contributed to the ongoing call for career development strategies that acknowledge the predominant patriarchal environment. Instead, it crashed and burned, demonstrating the importance of drawing proper conclusions and the immediate rejection of anything that perpetuates the systemic biases against women in STEM.