To promote gender equality, numerous studies have outlined the benefits of establishing a productive mentoring relationship. By sharing their knowledge more experienced scholars, it is argued, can help early career researchers to build self-confidence, increase competence, and avoid isolation (which is a risk deemed particularly prevalent in academia). While having a support system is important, I doubt that mentoring programmes can overcome the three deficits: the representation deficit based on the number of women in senior positions, the accessibility deficit based on a lack of diversity in terms of knowledge production, and the time deficit based on unequal workloads.
Sure, a mentor could be helpful in reducing the representation deficit by taking up the role of a sponsor and collaborator. Not only has it been proven that being mentored increases confidence, but also that a mentor can introduce early career researchers to their own networks and co-develop research projects. This, in turn, would enhance the profile of the junior academic and increase visibility, both of which are conducive for promotions. Yet, these initiatives do not tackle any systemic issues in the form of gendered perceptions within promotion panels. When having achieved similar or even more qualifications than men, the evidence shows that women are not promoted equally (which is intensified by a minority ethnic background). Mentoring does not address these systemic issues, but instead places the responsibility on the individual to develop career strategies within a dysfunctional system, thereby indirectly reinforcing it.
It is also questionable whether mentoring can reduce the accessibility deficit. Yes, formal mentoring has been found to be conducive to an enhanced publication record but this process in itself is problematic. Academic promotions are to a large degree dependent on publications where journals work as gatekeepers of knowledge. The mentor can teach the mentee the “particular kind of knowledge” requested by academic journals. However, the theories, methodologies, and geographical locations considered acceptable by journals not only downplay power imbalances based on gender and ethnicity, but also deepen them. At the same time, a mentor cannot influence gender bias in the publishing process, even when teaching the right kind of knowledge or collaborating with mentee. To name a few: women face higher publishing standards, are less likely to be given credit for their work and face a lengthier peer review process which in turn is detrimental for promotion.
Against this backdrop and the existing time deficit, it should not be surprising that there “have been negligible number of submissions by women” since the lockdown. Those with fewer care and domestic duties are able to use the lockdown to produce more articles and improve their publishing profile, while those with care duties – mostly women – are left behind. Carers now have to find time before or after the children are awake to record online lectures and manage student activities and then use a few hours during the day to work on research. Since the lockdown, journal editors have noticed that women have submitted fewer papers than usual at this time of the year in contrast to men who have submitted 50 percent more papers in some disciplines. While a mentor could give advice on how to manage time, they cannot make up for the fact that academia suffers from a substantial support deficit, often assuming uninterrupted working lives when evaluating career trajectories for promotion.
Given that these sexist practices continue to exist in the workplace and at home, a focus on mentoring as the solution props up this current system without challenging the underlying structures. Instead, the solution relies on helping “women build their skills and capacity” to succeed in a male dominated environment, placing the responsibility onto women. We at D-Econ have recently argued that career mentoring cannot be a panacea to overcome systemic limitations, but that a holistic approach is needed. Rather than mentoring programmes, we need clear-cut promotion categories which do not give too much leeway for interpretation. We need more emphasis on publication practices, highlighting inequalities and tackling these, for instance through measures as suggested by womenalsoknowstuff. These include, amongst others, journal editors checking the gender composition of references and encouraging authors to achieve a balanced citation practice. Finally, we need to reduce home inequality while acknowledging different life trajectories when evaluating promotions.
Ariane Agunsoye is a Lecturer in Economics at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is also on the steering committee of D-Econ, a network of economists who aim to promote inclusiveness in economics.
This post was originally published on the LSE Blog on Higher Education.