Sunday Longread: Female mentors in STEM fields are a precious resource, not a disadvantage

In the wake of a controversial paper published in Nature, Trinity academics weigh in on mentorship in their careers

When you embark on a STEM course as a woman, you are aware from the start that although the gender balance in STEM leadership and mentoring roles has greatly improved in recent decades, the number of women in leadership positions is still lower than their male counterparts. In the Engineering, Maths, and Science (EMS) Faculty, women still held only 24% of academic positions in 2017/2018, according to the annual equality monitoring report. This is significantly lower than the college-wide 45% of female academic staff in the same time frame. 

In addition to this, a 2017 report from the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership showed that as a percentage of total female academic staff, 65% supervised PhD students, compared to 79% of male academic staff. In short, the number of women in crucial mentoring positions, guiding students and young academics through their formative career stages, are significantly fewer in comparison with men. 

“Female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females,” the study states.

It is to a similar worldwide backdrop that a recent study in the renowned journal Nature was published, and has caused outrage amongst many academics. The paper, authored by Bedoor AlShebli, Kinga Makovi and Talal Rahwan, looked at the links between early career academic mentorship and the quality of papers published by the mentee after this mentorship. The study concludes: “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 finding could have had a significant impact on the already significant struggles of both female mentors and students.“Female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females,” the study states.  It has been previously shown that increasing the number of female mentors increases the likelihood of women staying in academia and also improves their career outcomes. So to say the recommendations by AlShebli et al. have the potential to throw a curveball for recent progress is an understatement. 

However, a few holes in the methodology of the study have been called into question, and Nature is currently investigating concerns that the data interpretation in the paper “undermines the role of female mentors and mentees”. The study was based on the Microsoft Academic Graph data set of scientists and papers. Firstly it identified mentors as paper authors with at least seven years of experience publishing scientific papers, who are co-authors on the same paper as the mentee. This is the first major flaw with this study, as many have pointed out co-authoring a paper does not inherently mean there was any significant degree of mentorship or guidance given by the “mentor” to the “mentee”. 

The study also identified both the mentor’s and mentee’s gender based on their names, using an algorithm. There is obvious room for errors here, including the existence of gender-neutral names and the many cases where a person’s name does not reflect their gender. The algorithm also does not take into account gender non-binary mentors or mentees. This use of names to guess at gender is standard practice however in studies of this nature, and though it may be flawed the researchers cannot be faulted for going with the standard modus operandi for determining genders of large groups. 

In addition to this, the measure with which the study determined the “post-mentorship impact” of mentees was by the number of citations they received post-mentorship. This itself is a biased way of judging the success of a scientist, one in which men will likely come out on top due to a pattern of citing their own papers on average 70% more than women, and due to a prevalence of academics rating a paper to be of higher quality if they think it is written by a man. No control was used to allow for this inherent skewing of citation levels. 

But even if the methods used by the paper are not flawed, and with an impressive 225 million scientists data examined and 222 million papers the study is certainly rigorous, it is less the findings that are troublesome and more that the recommendations of the authors seem too far a leap based on their data. They suggest: “While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia, our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career.” This seems to take the leap to “women shouldn’t mentor other women” instead of suggesting a further investigation into institutional bias affecting their data. Professor Rebecca Barnes, an American environmental scientist, said that “instead of coming to the conclusion that their data shows the system is biased, they come to the conclusion that women shouldn’t be mentors, which is blaming individuals as opposed to blaming a broken system. That’s why I think it’s so harmful.”

In the wake of this paper’s publication and public outrage, Trinity scientists were amongst those appalled by the conclusions of the study. Dr. Cristina Trujillo, a Trinity research fellow in computational chemistry reflects on a female professor in her final college year that inspired her to pursue quantum chemistry: “During my last year at college, I had a female professor teaching Quantum Chemistry. She was absolutely brilliant, intelligent, tough but at the same time modest and very approachable. After her lectures, I was utterly in love with Quantum Chemistry and I positively knew it, that’s what I wanted to do.”  

“I had the great fortune to have male and female [Ph.D.] supervisors, both of whom were the best mentors I could have ever wished for. They guided me, taught me, and provided me with so much more. They became one of the most important role models in my scientific life, and even now I still ask for their opinion and unconditional support in any of my scientific endeavours,” says Trujillo. 

Female mentors weren’t always in ready supply earlier in Trajillo’s career: “When I was a postgraduate student there were only two female PIs [Principal Investigators] in the whole department, and I was lucky to have one as my co-supervisor. After my Ph.D., I have held several postdoctoral positions and in six years I only had one female supervisor, here in Trinity. She has been brilliant and nowadays we still collaborate at a scientific level but also we are great friends. We are always supportive and honest with one another. As a PI myself now, I must say that I am currently the only female fully computational chemist in the School of Chemistry, which unfortunately means, the students are rarely given the opportunity of having a female theoretician supervisor.”

“Women have a strong impact on science and it’s well-recognized that we can achieve exactly the same as any other male scientist.”

On the controversial Nature paper, Trujillo says that “by diminishing female mentors they are reinforcing the well-accepted and old-fashioned perspective of what so many of us are fighting against throughout our entire careers: that the best path to success is by working with a big name, white male faculty members and that’s not true. Women have a strong impact on science and it’s well-recognized that we can achieve exactly the same as any other male scientist.”

Trujillo quotes British engineer, physicist, mathematician, inverter and suffragette, Hertha Ayrton: “The idea of “women in science” is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case, she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from scientific, not the sex, point of view.” Ayrton’s words are an impassioned outcry against the public scrutiny she and contemporaries like Marie Curie faced. “It is hard to believe that in the 21st century we must remind ourselves of those words again,” remarks Trujillo. 

Aside from their roles as scientific mentors, female mentors can be instrumental in keeping other women in science and academia, and showing that a work-life balance is achievable. Dr. Daniela Angione, a senior research fellow at CRANN, thinks the suggestions of the study are “nonsense”. She feels so strongly about the article because of the impact a female Ph.D. supervisor had on driving her career:

“Back then she was building her career. I started with her, she was kind of at the beginning of her career, with a family with two kids. And so for me, it was absolutely an inspiration. She was the reason why I fell in love with research and academia. Because not only was she very good at what she was doing, but also very good at transferring enthusiasm and motivation for what she was doing. On top of that, she was a successful woman and she had a family, for me all values that I believed in. She was fundamental for my career in science, in academia.”

“I don’t really understand how a female mentor could create a barrier or slow down a career, I don’t understand.”

“I don’t really understand how a female mentor could create a barrier or slow down a career, I don’t understand. I don’t think that should be the right message to pass on,” Angione says. If anything, she thinks that a particular female mentor can sometimes aid a career by setting an example of work-life balance but also by pushing their mentee to expand their horizons.  Angione says it was her supervisor who gave her the opportunity to work briefly in the US and pushed her to apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship which brought her to Manchester, shaping her career. Angione, once starting her work in Trinity, also had a mentor in Professor Paula Colavita, Angione saw how she balanced her research and teaching responsibilities with three children. “I stress this part because now I’m a mother, I have a three years old and I know how hard it is. But without these inspirational figures, I would have never thought that that could be possible to actually to achieve.”

“It’s not about gender. So we shouldn’t be taking this into account. I mean, nowadays we are in 2020, there’s not just male or female.”

Angione states that there are unfortunately still some barriers to career progression for those with family commitments, and this will often unfairly disadvantage women: “Sometimes you want to progress in your career,  to apply for a promotion, but the criteria to select people are very stringent and are sometimes not based on people that really have a good work-life balance. Before Covid-19, the number of conferences you have attended and the number of seminars you have traveled to would have been criteria. So mobility would have been a criterion for selecting somebody. I have traveled a lot, all my career, but then when you start a family, it becomes a bit more difficult to travel at the same pace, because you have other commitments. And for me, that would be something that we should think about not to have as criteria, or to take into consideration when you are hiring somebody.”

“The question about the paper is how an editor can actually let a publication like that, with so many flaws, and so many comments from reviewers that weren’t taken into account, to be published,” says Angione. Mentorship, she insists is “not about gender. It’s about how a mentor gives you the opportunity to grow, to develop in your career, the opportunity to learn from the best people in the world. A mentor gives you the tools to understand what you’re doing: writing publications, doing research, being independent. It’s not about gender. So we shouldn’t be taking this into account. I mean, nowadays we are in 2020, there’s not just male or female.”

Professor Isabel Rozas, a medicinal chemist with 20 years of experience lecturing at Trinity, says her early career in Spain she had an unusual surplus of female mentors and contemporaries: “Until I went to Canada as a postdoc, I never had that feeling that being a woman in chemistry was such a big deal. In the Institute of Medicinal Chemistry [in Madrid] where I was doing my research, 90% of the staff were women. It’s unusual, I’m not dreaming that it’s all the same in Spain, but in the particular Institute, most of the researchers were women, so for me, it was the normal thing. Women with kids, without kids, there was a big variety.” 

When working in Canada after this she was faced with the polar opposite, there were no female professors or lecturers in the department at all. She was surprised by questions from Canadian colleagues about how she dealt with being a woman in the field of chemistry, “I don’t “deal” with it! I mean, it’s a normal thing! I never felt weird for being a woman in Chemistry or that I was an exception or anything like that.”

“You can have wonderful mentors, male and female, and awful mentors of all genders!”

Rozas states that so many mentors shaped her career and that their gender naturally had no place in the impact they had:  “I find any way in which you force one situation or another very dangerous. I don’t think by any means that having a female mentor is going to damage the career of a female mentee. It all depends on the quality of the mentor, independent of gender. So it’s a question of how good you are managing your students.” She states: “I believe that there are some unbalances [in STEM] that need to be fixed. And certain [gender balance] quotas need to be taken for a period of time. But in terms of mentorship, I think is related more to quality than to gender. You can have wonderful mentors, male and female, and awful mentors of all genders!”

She also points out that the traditional academic hierarchy doesn’t have a place in her idea of mentorship; that she learns so much from less senior colleagues, from her own mentees, and from students. She gives an example: during lockdown, she received an unexpected email from a researcher she had formerly supervised for her Ph.D. that had spotted a connection with a compound in a paper she was reading and the main compounds focused on by Rozas’ research group which she felt could have applications within Rozas’ work. A couple a weeks later Rozas was surprised again by another former mentee reaching out; she had found a separate compound which could also have implications for the group’s work and had got in touch. Prof Rozas illustrates how the act of mentoring, is not only beneficial to the mentor, but also a symbiotic relationship where both parties can learn from one another. 

The one resounding experience that seems common to all these fantastic women in STEM is this: gender plays no role in their ability to mentor, a successful mentorship partnering is down to the work put in by the mentor and mentee. Though they all agree that we haven’t yet reached gender equality in STEM and that representation and inspiration of other women were integral to their careers, they are in unison that when it comes to mentorship, gender should never be a deciding factor. 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.