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Challenges faced by women in science

Edited by Katy Shoemaker

A debate at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA-USP) recently got my attention, entitled “Women in the University and Sciences: Challenges and Opportunities. If you can understand a bit of Portuguese, it is worth watching the entire video (it is only available in portuguese). The debate lasts around an hour and consists of three female scientists telling incredible statistics and surprising facts about women’s participation in the academic world, and some of these facts are really hard to believe.

So this week, I want to discuss some of the facts included in this debate. To do that, I searched for more data so we can go deeper into the subject. First of all, I was happy to find out that women represent about 50% of the undergraduate students in Brazil. We are even the majority in some areas. However, when we look only at the sciences and engineering, women make up less than 40%. At the University of São Paulo, USP, a paltry 15% of the students enrolled in engineering courses are female.

Extending beyond undergraduate education, there are also as many women as men in graduate and postdoc positions in Brazil. In fact, in 2010, more women earned Masters and Ph.D. titles than men. But again, that is not the reality in science and engineering. There is still something hampering our inclusion in these areas, including oceanography.

Number of scholarships per area in 2014. Source CNPq. Women: Feminino; Men: Masculino.

The most shocking numbers are those related to the distribution of specific research grants called PQ grants. These grants are awarded to researchers for research excellence, and they determine the distribution of funding to research projects in the country. Therefore, PQ grants directly affect our performance as researchers. PQ fellowships are tiered, and women's participation decreases as we go up each level. Note that women receive no more than 38% of these grants, even at the lowest level.

PQ research grants per level in 2014. Level 2 is the lowest category that a researcher can apply for, whereas SR is the highest level. Source: CNPq. Women: Feminino; Men: Masculino.

It is clear from these two plots that there is both horizontal and vertical segregation of men from women. Women appear to be concentrated in certain careers (horizontal), but within a career, there is a vertical separation of power, with women having low representation in the highest positions.

We find more examples of vertical segregation when we analyze leadership positions in large research groups. In Brazil there are currently 126 National Institutes of Science and Technology (INCTs). Well, 109 of those INCTs are run by men and only 17 by women. There are 6 INCTs focused on oceanography/marine science, and only one of those is lead by a woman (Antarctic Environmental Research - INCT-APA).

An all too common scenario can be seen in the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). The following data was presented by the physicist Carolina Brito (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul) in the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this post. For a researcher to join ABC, he/she is nominated by an ABC member and a committee decides whether or not that researcher will enter. This committee is massively comprised by men, and as you can imagine, the result is not at all encouraging for female scientists. There is a list of the current ABC members on their website. There are 795 men and 122 women in ABC. From these, 15% of the men are below the 1A level in the CNPq, and only 1% of the women are below level 1A researchers. A fast interpretation we can make is this: if you want to be a member of ABC, and if you are a woman, it is almost mandatory to be a level 1A researcher or higher. For men, this standing does not have the same impact.

Unfortunately, this reality does not seem to be getting any better. In 2008, 20% of the deans in universities were women, and 8 years later, this number dropped to 10%. Although 48% of the Ph.D. holders are women, only 23% of them occupy teaching positions in our public universities. In a previous post we have addressed some of the reasons for why women quit the academic career at a higher rate than men (When to add children to the academic timeline).

So, what can we do to change that picture?

  1. The data presented here is limited. We need numbers, we need more indicators.

  2. We need training on gender issues. In France, curriculum was recently modified to discuss gender in all undergraduate courses. That sounds like a good start.

  3. We need to fund women's projects, provide scholarships, and reward them. We have very few initiatives, but these have incredible effects. Check out the post Finding self-confidence as a woman in science to see Deborah's testimony on the importance of being recognized in her area.

  4. We need role models. Young female scientists do not see people like themselves in power positions regularly enough. Socially, girls are still discouraged to pursue scientific careers that are considered "hard." From a very young age, we are overwhelmed with ancient cliches telling us how to take care of the house, how to be good wives, mothers, true ladies of our homes. We have to give girls the opportunity to fall in love with science and make them confident that this relationship can work. The L'Oreal Foundation recently conducted an opinion poll that demonstrated how Europeans feel about the role of women in science. Five thousand people were heard (men and women), and 67% said that women are not qualified to hold positions of high responsibility. The main reason being that "women would suffer from lack of perseverance, lack of practical spirit, scientific rigor, rational, and analytical spirit."

All I have to say about this is: It’s time to get to work! At the VII Brazilian Congress of Oceanography there was a round table discussion on the subject, with a crowded room of people eager to speak. Although it was an excellent experience, there is still so much to discuss. So I want to invite you all to continue this discussion. Let's talk about gender in the spaces we occupy, spread this idea! Organize an event and call everyone you know. Share your experiences with us!


References on statistics:

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