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Enough with the tired narratives about Women in STEM. Research needs to be intersectional.

Written by Marie Lilly

I opened Twitter on November 18, 2020, to see a Nature Communications article titled, “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance.

As a graduate student pursuing a career in STEM, receiving mentorship and serving as a mentor to others has been integral to my success and overall experience. I clicked the article excited to gain more insight into how to be a better mentor and mentee. After rolling my eyes through the abstract, I felt angry, frustrated, and overwhelmingly tired to see the authors concluded that women are bad mentors for women. That my graduate research advisor is a bad mentor for me. That I am a bad mentor for other women.

I am angry that in the year 2020, respected academic journals are publishing conclusions so lacking in critical analysis. Less than 30% of the world’s scientific researchers are women and jumping to such conclusions from their results will not help bring that number up. I am frustrated that the authors ignored implicit bias against women in STEM, institutional barriers, and the emotional toll of working in a field with such an apparent gender gap to form their interpretations. The following tweet perfectly summarized their flawed findings:

Before defending my undergraduate thesis, a male mentor told me that I needed to change some of my more feminine mannerisms because a group of majority male reviewers might interpret my presentation style as poorly understanding my results. That as a woman in science, I would have to come across as more serious than some of my male counterparts in order to receive the same respect. I was not upset with my mentor for giving me this advice and appreciated him being honest and looking out for me. I was, however, extremely upset that this advice was relevant and that I would have to waste energy on “not being too feminine” instead of putting all my focus into explaining my exciting result that eastern gray squirrels infer safety from bird chatter.

I love science, but I’m tired of all that goes along with the label and experience of being a “woman in the sciences.” I’m tired of the narrow scope of studies investigating the gender gap in STEM. Why do we only focus on the binary opposition of men vs. women? What about genders that don’t fit the male/female binary? What about the overwhelming whiteness of STEM and the role of racism in mentor/mentee relationships? What about economic disparities and access to STEM education? What about ageism? What about the heteronormative paradigms pushed in curriculum and how that contributes to mentorship dynamics? Where is the intersectionality of these overlapping identities? Academia likes to separate science from identity, but science does not exist in a vacuum. Science is created by scientists. Scientists are people. People have intersectional identities.

Academic journals, peer reviewers, and the STEM community as a whole have a responsibility to stop promoting tired narratives about women in STEM that ultimately hurt the progression and advancement of diverse identities—including but not limited to women—in the sciences.

What are some actions you can take to push for progression and inclusivity in STEM research? Be aware of bias even in scientific journals and read with a critical eye. Know that your voice holds power and call out problematic studies by raising your concerns to the editors, to the authors directly, or making noise on public platforms such as Twitter. Together we can hold journals like Nature Communications accountable for the content they promote and hold ourselves accountable for refusing to accept bad science.

In response to reader backlash, Nature Communications has published an editor’s note informing readers that “this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Those criticisms were targeted to the authors’ interpretation of their data that gender plays a role in the success of mentoring relationships between junior and senior researchers, in a way that undermines the role of female mentors and mentees. We are investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.”


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