Women researchers in life sciences face gender inequities in mentoring

By The Science Advisory Board staff writers

September 9, 2022 -- There is a disproportionate tendency for women to leave academic research instead of advancing to positions in which they become mentors themselves, according to an analysis of formal PhD and postdoctoral mentoring relationships in the life sciences.

The study, published September 8 in the journal PLOS Biology, evaluated the outcomes of PhD and postdoctoral mentoring relationships during the years 2000 to 2020 for a total of 11,112 mentors and 26,420 trainees. The researchers found that trainees with women mentors were less likely to become academic mentors themselves than trainees with men mentors.

At the same time, the analysis revealed that a mentor's status is mostly unrelated to whether they tend to work with trainees of the same gender. However, mentors with outstanding distinctions -- such as being a Nobel Prize recipient or a member of the National Academy of Sciences -- were more likely to have men trainees, potentially further contributing to the lower representation of women in academic mentorship positions.

"These results suggest that, in addition to other factors that limit career choices for women trainees, gender inequities in mentors' access to resources and prestige contribute to women's attrition from independent research positions," the study's authors wrote.

While the proportion of women in graduate training programs is increasing, the study highlights a disturbing aspect of academic gender disparities in the life sciences that appear to be structural and that disproportionately affect the subsequent careers of women trainees. To help address this issue, the researchers proposed the idea of boosting the number of women trainees among mentors with outstanding distinctions.

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