As More Women Enter Science, It’s Time to Redefine Mentorship

When a group of researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi published a paper in Nature Communications last fall suggesting that young women scientists should seek out men as mentors, the backlash was swift and vociferous. Countless scientists, many of them women, registered their indignation on Twitter—some even penning open letters and their own preprints in response. The original paper had found that female junior scientists who authored papers with male senior scientists saw their papers cited at higher rates. But a number of critics contested the assertion that this result established a link between male mentors and career performance. Scientists routinely coauthor articles with people who are not their mentors, they argued, and citation rates are just one metric of achievement. In response to these criticisms, the authors eventually retracted their paper. (They declined to comment to WIRED.)But the paper had already stirred up a broader discussion about gender and mentorship in academia. For Danielle Bassett , a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the methodological concerns that prompted the paper’s retraction were far from its worst sin. She herself has researched citation practices and found that, in neuroscience, papers with male senior authors are cited at a disproportionately high rate—primarily because other male scientists preferentially cite them. To suggest that young women should therefore try to author papers with men is, she believes, a grave error. “That was a problem in assigning blame,” she says. “The onus is on us to create a scientific culture that lets students choose a mentor that’s right for them.”

Creating such a culture is no easy task. Men dominate the upper echelons of the sciences. Even in fields like psychology, where women make up the majority of students in undergraduate and graduate programs, men held two-thirds of full professorships as of 2014. In engineering, that number rises to 88 percent. So young women and other minority scientists face a conundrum that most men never need to consider—should I work with a mentor who looks like me, or work with a mentor who has a big name?

Researchers have demonstrated benefits for scientists who choose mentors who share their demographics—though those benefits may be more emotional than academic. One study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, showed that women in engineering who had female mentors were more likely to remain in the field and felt a greater sense of belonging, although their grades were no better than those of classmates with male mentors. Another study, published in Journal of Social Issues in 2011, found that same-gender and same-race mentors in STEM fields had no effect on grades, but that students felt that having an adviser who was similar to them was important.
“Mentoring is not just about opening the door,” says Audrey Murrell, a professor of business administration, psychology, and public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s about making people feel welcome. It’s about developing them, it’s about providing for the whole person.”It’s not difficult to imagine why women might prefer female mentors, and why female mentors might help them remain in their fields. Women in science face obstacles that men rarely do—sexual harassment, maternity discrimination, and dismissal of their abilities on the basis of their gender, to name a few. An adviser who has herself experienced these obstacles is probably best positioned to support a young scientist as she navigates them. “It’s really hard to know what hurdles you didn’t have to jump over,” says Kristen Lindquist, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill who authored a response last fall to the Nature Communications paper. (She and her coauthors argued that the researchers had discovered nothing new about citation patterns, and that they had neglected the well-known benefits of same-gender mentorship.)