Male Gender Does Not Determine Best Mentors for Women Physicians

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  • December 15, 2020

How Women Physicians Fair When Mentored by Men versus Women

AMWA challenges the concept that women reap the greater benefit when mentored/sponsored by men. The problem, according to AMWA leaders is to recognize that more men than women are in positions of power in many professions including medicine. We need to have more senior, authoritative women leaders to promote the careers of all mentees.

Statement on Mentorship of Women in Medicine

The American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) is deeply concerned about the results and conclusions of the recent paper, “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance” published in Nature Communications.1

The authors’ state that: “female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females,” and that “current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women who remain in academia…” are shallow interpretations based on flawed assumptions. For instance, the authors defined a “senior scientist” as one whose first publication occurred seven or more years earlier.

This is an over-simplification that fails to acknowledge the well-described differences in career trajectories and advancement timelines between men and women scientists,2 and could have resulted in misclassification of the subjects in this study. Other possible confounders include gender inequity on journal editorial boards,3 and higher standards for women in academic writing,4 both of which create barriers to publication for women scientists.

While we do not dispute the fact that women’s academic advancement lags behind that of men, we object to the conclusion that woman-woman mentoring pairs pose a risk to the careers of both the senior scientist and her protege. AlShebli et al. argued that by their definition, higher quality mentoring relationships were associated with higher impact publications.

However, successful mentorship involves not only citation statistics, but less quantifiable yet critically important metrics such as persistence, personalized advice, and sponsorship, which are developed through strong mentoring partnerships.5 The failure to mention these “softer skills” neglects other crucial factors that assist mentees in identifying priorities and accepting challenges that will benefit them professionally.

The choice to examine and report on this rich data set with such a narrow focus, rather than to address the complex relationships and measures of success surrounding mentorship of women scientists is damaging, particularly during a year where the global coronavirus pandemic has stunted academic productivity disproportionately for women.6

Rather than suggesting that women avoid collaborating and supporting one another, mentoring research should focus on the factors that would constitute high-quality mentorship between junior and senior researchers to improve upon current and historical sex and gender-related disparities in education and career advancement.

In addition, we observe that research on mentorship of and between transgender, non-binary, and other historically-excluded scientists is lacking. Thus, we encourage future work to be more encompassing of gender identities that may be pertinent to career outcomes and prospects for advancement.

The American Medical Women’s Association is committed to advancing women in medicine, advocating for equity, and ensuring excellence in healthcare and the biomedical sciences and has done so for 105 years. Through our initiatives and partnerships with entities such as the #NeedHerScience campaign and TIME’S UP Healthcare, we aim to close the gender gap in medical academics by addressing systemic barriers such as bias and sexual harassment.

We invite scientists of all genders who are committed to addressing inequities among women researchers to join AMWA as we continue to advocate for equity, provide mentorship, and promote the advancement of women in biomedicine and healthcare.

Authors:

Katherine M. Sharkey, MD, PhD, FAASM, FACP, AMWA Mentoring Committee Chair
Eliza L. Chin, MD, MPH, FACP, FAMWA, Executive Director
Delaney Cairns, Medical Student, Medical College of Wisconsin
Nicole Sandhu, MD, PhD, AMWA President
Janice Werbinski, MD, FACOG, AMWA President-Elect
Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD, FACP, FAMWA, AMWA Advocacy Committee Chair

References:

  1. AlShebli B., Makovi K, Rahwan, T. The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nat Commun; 2020. Available at doi:10.1038/s41467-020-19723-8. Accessed December 9, 2020.
  2. Pohlhaus JR, Jiang H, Wagner RM, Schaffer WT, Pinn VW. Sex differences in application, success, and funding rates for NIH extramural programs. Acad Med. 2011;86(6):759-767.
  3. Silver JK. Gender equity on journal editorial boards. Lancet. 2019;18;393(10185):2037-2038.
  4. Hengel E. Publishing while female. Cambridge Work. Pap. Econ. 2017.
  5. Ayyala MS. et al. Mentorship Is Not Enough: Exploring Sponsorship and Its Role in Career Advancement in Academic Medicine. in Academic Medicine; 2019; doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000002398.
  6. Krukowski RA, Jagsi R, Cardel MI. Academic Productivity Differences by Gender and Child Age in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine Faculty During the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Womens Health. [Online] 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2020.8710. Accessed December 9, 2020.
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