An article was recently published by Nature Communications titled “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance” (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-19723-8).
In our view, this study makes questionable assumptions to underpin its analysis of a large amount of open data on peer-reviewed publications, e.g., assuming that co-authorship equals mentoring. On this basis, the authors draw some counter-intuitive conclusions such as “female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females” and that “mentors benefit more when working with male protégés rather than working with comparable female protégés, especially if the mentor is female”.
Of even greater concern, the authors assert that their work has evidence-based implications for HR and diversity policies in academic institutions: specifically 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 in unexpected ways”.
Having read the paper carefully and discussed its implications with some members of the Department, we are moved to make the following statement:
The status of women at all stages of career development in academia, from students to professors and other senior leaders, has been systemically disadvantaged for generations. Female students and staff deserve the full support of dedicated mentoring and career development guidance schemes that can help them to develop their full potential and overcome the historical biases against women in science and academic life generally.
We do not accept that the contrary conclusions of this paper are well justified. Indeed, these policy recommendations, if accepted, have the potential to set back the slow progress that is being made towards a more equitable culture which values and nurtures each individual equally, regardless of sex, ethnicity or any other aspect of diversity.
Mentoring of female students and early career researchers by female staff in the Department is a highly valued aspect of our current arrangements for guidance and support of all students and staff. We have personal experience of the considerable benefits of female mentoring to both mentees and mentors and we don’t propose to make any changes in Departmental policy in response to this potentially misleading paper.
We have already joined with colleagues internationally in expressing our serious concerns about this paper to the editors of Nature Communications. We are now writing to all members of the Department to make clear our views and to reassure colleagues that there is no intention to reverse the progress we have been making towards a more inclusive, diverse and mutually supportive system of mentoring students and younger staff in the Department of Psychiatry.
Prof Ed Bullmore, Head, Department of Psychiatry
Prof Tamsin Ford, Chair, Equality & Diversity Committee
Dr Simon White, MRC Biostatistics Unit