Gender Gap in Academia Remains Alive and Well

Author information:

Noam Raiter, BA, Medical Student/MD Candidate 2022, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University; ✉ [email protected]


To the Editor:  A currently under review paper published in Nature Communications discusses the role and importance of mentorship in academia (AlShebli et al., 2020). This concept is familiar to nearly every scientific professional who has provided or received mentorship in their careers. Learning from senior scientists endows junior scientists with both wisdom, scientific knowledge and the connections necessary to make career advancements. AlShebli et al. (2020) conducted an analysis of mentor-protege pairs across 10 different scientific fields (Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, Geology, Materials Science, Medicine, Physics, and Psychology). Their goal was to determine if the presence of a mentor and the quality of the mentor-protege relationship affected the protege’s academic success later in their career. Unsurprisingly, this study showed that having a positive and high quality mentor can predict the scientific impact that a junior scientist will have in their career. More interestingly, the authors also collected gender data of mentorship pairs. They found that females who have a female mentor have less academic success in their careers compared to those who were mentored by a man with equivalent credentials and citations. The objectives of this study and the data it provides is important. It is empirical evidence that females in science are given less credit, authority, and prestige than men. It shows that the gender gap in medicine, psychology, and all other mentioned fields still exists. Creating equal opportunity for females to enter these fields is insufficient when they are faced with relentless sexism once they enter them. We must not forget that creating equity in these fields does not inherently promise equality. Why does having a female mentor correlate to less success in one’s career? Does an article published by a woman have less merit than that published by a man? Is a junior scientist less impressive and less likely to advance in their field if they boast of their renowned female mentor than if they do so of a male mentor?

Unfortunately, the benefits reaped from this paper end once the discussion section is reached. The authors continue to interpret this data and draw conclusions that are far from beneficial for females in academic fields, including medicine. They suggest that in order to promote gender equality in academia a policy change is required. Specifically, this new policy should cease promotion of female to female mentor-protege pairs and instead inform junior scientists that if they want to progress in their fields they must find a male mentor.

Next, it is shown that male junior scientists do not see a reduction in their future success if they choose a female mentor. Interestingly, the authors make this suggestion in a seemingly positive light. They continue to state that in order to break the glass ceiling faced by females in science, all genders must work together and therefore we must promote inter-gender mentorship pairs. Although this sentiment is both compelling and true, their proposed methods of doing so are inherently flawed. By stating that female mentors simply just need to choose male protege and female proteges need to choose male mentors, the authors are able to scapegoat their paper as one which promotes female progression in science. Yes, all genders must work cooperatively to push these fields towards inclusivity. No, this is not the way to do so. This study will inadvertently compel male mentors to seek male proteges instead of female proteges if they believe males are more likely to continue propagating success into future generations.

Essentially, the conclusions made by this study are subliminally propagating a problem that they claim they are trying to solve. Further, many studies have shown the benefit of inter-female mentorship in the scientific fields (Bauman et al., 2014; Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017; Gaule & Piacentini, 2018; Hernandez et al., 2017). Yet, suddenly this one studies attempts to step on all of these past findings. Promoting young females to avoid seeking female mentorship has incredibly damaging long term effects that outweigh any potential short term gain.

Although the authors proposed in a few simple sentences some potential reasons for this discrepancy, there is a lack of any discussion on how we can prevent these inequalities from existing in the first place. The authors state that the drivers of this discrepancy are “out of scope” for the present work. I argue, they are the entire core and foundation of these claims. Why do young female scientists require male mentors to achieve their maximum career potentials? Is a reference letter from a female mentor less impressive than one from a male mentor with the same credentials? Why, in 2020, do females still need males to pave the way for their success? Instead of attempting to create policy change to dismantle these barriers, the authors opt for the simpler alternative: give female leaders even less power and authority by discouraging young scientists from seeking their mentorship.

This article seems to ignore all other inherent determinants of sexism in the scientific fields and pose that the only thing holding back females in medicine is apparently females in medicine. Not only this, but the way this data has been framed will allow it to be cited by future literature aimed at preventing female’s progression in academia.

Suggesting that females will be less successful mentors may lead to many long term effects that will push science further and further away from the ultimate goal of equality for all genders. Such effects many include: discouraging females from entering the scientific fields if it is known their progression is limited, decreased funding to females led research projects if their outcomes are deemed less influential, and rob young scientists the opportunity to learn more from the female perspective in their fields as mentorship goes beyond so-called hard skills and ability to produce publications.

Taking a step back, I would also like to question how such an article was published in the first place in a well respected journal such as Nature Communications. Just a few months ago, the internet burst into uproar over a controversial (and since retracted) article in the Journal of Vascular Surgery which threatened gender equality in medicine (Hardouin et al., 2020). Yet, clearly, this call for change did not have long lasting effects.

It is clear that paternalistic male-dominant views still hold true in the field and go as far as editors turning a blind eye to blatantly damaging articles. The present published work by AlShebli and colleagues is currently under review and justifiably so. As we await an editorial response, I encourage us to maintain a critical eye when absorbing information even from peer-reviewed articles. We must continue to question and challenge views which oppress female’s abilities to progress in the scientific field. As the paper mentioned, dismantling the glass ceiling should not be a task simply on the shoulders of females.

Conflict of Interest Statement: 

The author reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


AlShebli, B., Makovi, K., & Rahwan, T. (2020). The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nature Communications, 11(1).

Bauman, M. D., Howell, L. P., & Villablanca, A. C. (2014). The Women in Medicine and Health Science Program. Academic Medicine, 89(11), 1462–1466.

Dennehy, T. C., & Dasgupta, N. (2017). Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(23), 5964–5969.

Gaule, P., & Piacentini, M. (2018). An advisor like me? Advisor gender and post-graduate careers in science. Research Policy, 47(4), 805–813.

Hardouin, S., Cheng, T. W., Mitchell, E. L., Raulli, S. J., Jones, D. W., Siracuse, J. J., & Farber, A. (2020). RETRACTED: Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons. Journal of Vascular Surgery, 72(2), 667–671.

Hernandez, P. R., Bloodhart, B., Barnes, R. T., Adams, A. S., Clinton, S. M., Pollack, I., … Fischer, E. V. (2017). Promoting professional identity, motivation, and persistence: Benefits of an informal mentoring program for female undergraduate students. Plos One, 12(11).

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