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Are Female Researchers Better Off with Male Mentors?
Why Leading Scientists Say No

Article In Brief

New research suggests mentors who are men have greater impact on the success of young women scientists than female mentors. Several neurologists advised their younger counterparts to interpret the findings with caution given that the study methodology may have been flawed.

A study on the benefits of male and female mentorship generated a barrage of criticism from both women and women scientists—including neurologists—for what many say is good reason.

The November 17 study in Nature Communications by three faculty members at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus suggested that mentors who are men have greater impact on the success of young women scientists than female mentors.

The scientific community reacted swiftly on Twitter, with many users breaking apart the study's methodology and sharing anecdotes about how female scientists helped them progress through their career. And a response letter written by six scientists said the study contained “false data and unjustified conclusions.” In a November 19 note, the journal addressed the criticism, stating that it is “investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.”

In interviews with Neurology Today, several neurologists advised their younger counterparts to interpret the findings with caution. The methodology behind the study may have been flawed, some said, noting that, in reality, forming relationships with multiple male and female mentors throughout your career is the best way to get ahead.

Analyzing Big Data

The study authors—Bedoor Alshebli, PhD, assistant professor of computational social science; Kinga Makovi, PhD, assistant professor of social research and public policy; and Talal Rahwan, PhD, associate professor of computer science— analyzed 222 million detailed records of scientific publications and their citations, spanning 100 years, in the Microsoft Academic Graph, a dataset of scientific publications and citations . They defined junior scientists and senior scientists based on the number of years since their first publication: A junior scientist would be within the first seven years of his or her first publication and anyone with more experience would be a senior scientist. They used the following criteria to define mentor-protégé pairs: “Whenever a junior scientists published a paper with a senior scientist, we consider the former to be a protégé, and the latter to be a mentor, as long as they coauthored at least one paper with 20 or less co-authors and share the same discipline and US-based affiliation.”

The researchers identified three million mentor-protégé pairs across ten disciplines, including medicine. They then sampled 2,000 of these proteges and sent them surveys to which 167 responded. Most of the protégés said their senior coauthors helped them with at least one of the following: writing research papers, designing their research study, analyzing their data, responding to reviewers and selecting a publication venue. In addition, the majority also stated that they received help with grant writing, a letter of recommendation, career planning advice, or help with networking.

To measure the scientific impact of protégés post-mentorship, the researchers looked at the citation rates of the protégé's papers, specifically those published seven years after their first publication without their mentors. The citations measured by the researchers were limited to five years past a paper's publication. They reported that for female protégés, having more female mentors was associated with a lower citation rate post mentorship. In addition, they found that female mentors received fewer citations when they had female rather than male protégés.

The study authors concluded that “female proteges who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females.” Programs that promote female-to-female mentorships may actually be detrimental to women, they stated.

They did note in the paper that their dataset does not capture societal aspects behind the data. “One potential explanation could be that, historically, male scientists have enjoyed more privileges and access to resources than their female counterparts, and thus were able to provide more support to their proteges,” they said.

In an email to Neurology Today, Drs. Alshebli, Makovi, and Rahwan said they selected citations as a measure of a success after mentorship mainly because it a widely recognized measure and considered by promotion and tenure committees.

“We express our steadfast solidarity with and support of the countless women who have been a driving force in scientific advancement, and many have personally been extremely influential in our own careers,” they said. “Our gender-related findings are undoubtedly a reflection of the persistent undercurrents of gender inequality in science. The conversations sparked by our paper are important. We believe that free inquiry and debate are engines of science, and we welcome a thorough and rigorous discussion of our work as well as its complex implications.”

Neurologists Criticize Methods

Several leading research scientists told Neurology Today, however, that the analysis itself was problematic. “The methods do not stand up,” said Nina F. Schor, MD, PhD, FAAN, deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “This is not based on emotion or politics, but the fact that the methods of this study are not scientifically sound.”

Dr. Schor said she was surprised the low survey response rate of 8 percent passed muster with the journal. She also said it is not clear that the authors the researchers identified as mentors are in fact mentors.

“In biomedical science you can be listed as a study author if you referred two or three patients to a clinical trial. We don't know how scientists in these other fields identify individuals for inclusion as paper authors,” she said.

The volume of work the researchers put into their analysis is impressive, she said, but, ultimately, the criteria they used for success introduced bias. Research shows men are more likely to get their papers published and to have higher citation rates, she said. Women and other under-represented groups tend to research areas that are not widely studied, and there are only so many times researchers within a small field can cite one another, she added.

“If you judge success by things that favor men, like number of publications and citation rates, you will conclude that men are more successful,” Dr. Schor said.

Because the authors looked at papers published over the last century, the findings showing higher citation rates for male-related mentorships could be related to their historical domination of their fields, said Renee M. Pazdan, MD, FAAN, medical director of the TRICARE Overseas Program for the Defense Health Agency.

“I think it's a reflection of what was versus what is, although we know this is still the case that women still are under-represented at the most senior levels of leadership,” Dr. Pazdan said. “My best guess is that if this were broken down by time the effect would be less and less.”

Carlayne E. Jackson, MD, FAAN, professor of neurology and otolaryngology at UT Health San Antonio, who was granted the AAN Leading in Excellence Through Mentorship award in 2017, agreed.

“I think the researchers make a valid point in that historically, male scientists have had more privilege and access to resources than female counterparts,” Dr. Jackson said. That may have affected the support that female proteges got from their male mentors. But I'm not sure that is necessarily true in current day-to-day practice.”

Another concern is that the study excluded papers with overlapping authorship with mentors. “Oftentimes, the relationships that are successful involve continued work together in a common form of interest which would result in co-authorship,” said Irene Malaty, MD, FAAN, the Barbara Padgett Dein Professor of Neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.

Taking a Wider View of Mentorship

Dr. Schor advised female neurologists to seek a variety of mentors and pointed out that mentorship can be much less formal that the definition proposed in this study.

“I've learned as much from observing people and knowing what to do as much as what not to do. For example, it was from a ‘mentor’ that I learned how not to treat a graduate student,” she said.


“I wouldnt get discouraged by this paper. Dont not choose female mentors. Theres other ways to measure success than just how many citations a paper gets.”—DR. YASMIN KHAKOO

Mentorships can cross many functions, including teaching, research, and patient care. Female mentors can advise in all of these areas as well as about work-life issues that tend to fall on women's laps, according to Dr. Jackson.

“I had a male mentor who encouraged me to write papers and apply for grants and got me connected to the research world, but I had a female mentor who told me where to send my kids for after school care and what meal plan to get, things that made my life equally productive,” she said.

And there is ample evidence to show that female mentors increase the likelihood of women staying in academia, said Dawn Eliashiv, MD, professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Seizure Disorder Center.

“I think the best way for her to go forward is to make sure that your mentor is a high-quality mentor who has impact and connections in the field,” she said. “If that person is a woman there is the added advantage of being able to relate to the gender gap disparities.”

Yasmin Khakoo, MD, director of the child neurology program at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said although she's a mentor herself, she still maintains a network of more than a dozen men and women whom she often turns to for advice.

“I wouldn't get discouraged by this paper,” Dr. Khakoo said. “Don't not choose female mentors. There's other ways to measure success than just how many citations a paper gets.”

Link Up for More Information

• AlShebli B, Makovi K, Rahwan T. The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance Nat Commun 2020;11:5855.
    • AAN Women Leading in Neurology Program:
      • AAMC Early Career Women Faculty Leadership Development Seminar:
        • AAMC Mid-Career Women Faculty Leadership Development Seminar: