As a young principal investigator in the 1980s, Dame Anne Mills was often approached by female scientists keen to join her team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“I was a researcher with children, continuing my career in global health, so people sought me out,” said Dame Anne, who is now the school’s deputy director and provost.
It was “no coincidence” that the “great majority of my research teams have been women”, she added. “Some of the applicants had struggled with male research leaders and saw that I would support them by allowing them more flexibility."
Many institutions have since made great progress to ensure academic careers are more family-friendly but some believe there is much more to do, particularly on encouraging more effective mentoring for female academics.
In a study, published in the journal Annals of Global Health and based on answers from 405 delegates at last year’s Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, held at Stanford University, the lack of mentoring emerged as the main barrier to achieving a leadership position – with 56 per cent of respondents identifying it as a problem.
The study, “Advancing women leaders in global health: getting to solutions”, which was led by University of Michigan researcher Cheryl Moyer, suggests that institutions should incentivise mentorship and incorporate it into more of their training programmes.
However, some respondents also note that institutional structures are only part of the problem and that “women need to do a better job supporting one another”.
“Most women don’t like to mentor or encourage each other,” says one respondent, quoted anonymously, who adds that “most of them have a ‘Pull Her Down Syndrome’ – never will they applaud someone’s efforts but will always give negative comments that bring someone down.” Another argues that “if women are going to make progress we have to take a long, hard look at how women do and don’t support each other.”
While many would disagree with this sentiment, other female professors have argued that this desire to ask women to take on more mentorship roles, alongside other unrewarded “academic citizenry” tasks, is part of the problem.
Instead, male staff should take a lead on the issue, say some respondents. One cites the “innate human tendency to mentor people who remind you of yourself” as a problem. “I have incredible [male] bosses and colleagues who are genuinely interested in advancing women, but there are many moments when there is an opportunity to…give a young scientist a speaking slot or new responsibility and they default to thinking of a young man for the opportunity,” she says.
“I’ve had several mentors and none of them were women,” reflected Dame Anne, adding that this was chiefly because “when I joined [the LSHTM] the only women were lab technicians and secretaries.”
Despite her debt to these mentors, Dame Anne believes that there are some areas in which women will act as better advisers to young female academics. “Some of the role is just giving people confidence to pursue a career, but often you have to answer very practical questions, such as the best way to manage your career after returning from maternity leave,” explained Dame Anne.
“If you work in global health you have to travel a lot, which is much harder if you are balancing family and work, which is a challenge increasingly faced by men too; but women who face this problem are probably more alert to it,” said Dame Anne. She suggested that mentors could suggest roles that do not require as much travel when children are younger.
Wafaa El-Sadr, based at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and founder and director of the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs, which has more than 2,000 staff, said that universities had massively improved their mentoring practices for female staff. “Many institutions have also created incentives for departments and programmes based on whether they recruit and retain women, as well as ethnic minority staff, which has been very helpful,” said the Egyptian-born epidemiologist.
With only one in four global leadership positions at the US’ top medical schools held by women, there is much more work to be done, said Professor El-Sadr, who insists that it is not just an issue of combating inequality, particularly in her own research area. “HIV is really a disease of women – they are uniquely vulnerable to it – so it is important that women are driving the programmes and solutions to it,” she added.
“Women often bring very different approaches to problems, and, by doing so, will bring better interventions.”