Perspectives: International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11-02-2020

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. On 11 February, this day is implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners that aim to promote women and girls in science. This day is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

To help commemorate this awareness day, we asked women across our network to share with us their experience of working and studying in science. They presented to us a snapshot of the situation for women working in science within Europe. They also presented their view on the best ways to help improve the long term prospects for women and girls in science:

 

What is the current situation for women and girls in science from your own experience?

Prof. Ilse Jacobsen, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): From my personal experience, few systematic structural obstacles persist for women in science: In my area, adequate representation of women and minorities is an important factor in the design and evaluation of conference programmes. We have several prominent female role models in the community and women receive the same mentoring support as men.

…implicit bias might still affect some decisions…
(Bottom Left) Youyou Tu, Lihadh Al-Gazali, Jane Goodall, Mae Jemison, Marie Curie, Maria Teresa Ruiz Gonzalez (Top Right)

The recruitment process for faculty requires female candidates to be invited and I’ve never experienced explicit bias against women there. However, implicit bias might still affect some decisions and there are of course practical issues that should be improved. One example is on-site child care (affecting both mothers and fathers), which despite significant efforts in the last years does not meet the demand existing at our university and is often not at all available at conferences.

What I however found to be one of the main reasons for promising women to leave an academic career are decisions made in private life: It is still often the woman and not the man who spends time at home with very young children, or organizes family life. Similarly, when it comes to moving to another city or country for the professional career, it is still much more common for the woman to follow the man. It is this area of private life that has a huge impact on women’s career decisions – and which can’t be changed by institutional policies only.

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Dr Patricia Bernal, Junior Research Group Leader, Universidad de Sevilla (Spain): The status of women in science in developed countries has progressed towards equality with men in the last decades. However, there is still a lot of work to do since gender inequality still persists in the leading positions, i.e. 45% of European PhD laureates are women but only 16% lead a research group. Fortunately, this inequality is not politically correct anymore and Research Institutions are taking measures to counter-balance the situation.

…comments in the corridor are still of the type “women do not perform as well in the job interviews as men”…

In my own experience, these measures are positive but not as effective and direct as expected. Unconscious bias and stereotypes have been proven difficult to “reverse” and we are facing a very complex problem with many factors involved that needs coordinated actions. The reality is that even in Research Centres with gender equality policies implemented, the number of women leading research groups is absurdly low and comments in the corridor are still of the type “women do not perform as well in the job interviews as men”.

One reason for the policies not to be working could be that women features are not recognised as positive attributes; in fact, in a male-dominated culture, they have traditionally been and still are perceived as weaknesses; that means that most women will not be seen as competent for the job as their male peers, resulting in a very low number of female leaders. Moreover, the vast majority of non-paid caregivers are women (children, grandparents, care-dependent family members, etc) and the time needed for family care greatly affect women careers in science where breaks, remote work and part-time schedule are heavily penalised.

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Dr Sarah Wettstadt, Postdoctoral Researcher, Estacion Experimental de Zaidin, Granada (Spain): The scientific world managed to progress slowly but steadily towards equality between men and women, it obviously is not going to be an easy and fast progress. Now, society also needs to understand that women can be successful in science.

Society cannot expect women to give up their career for the men’s career…

It starts with the fact that girls/women love scientific subjects at school and choose to embark a career in science out of passion. Society needs to understand this and needs to learn not to be afraid of these women. This goes further in higher career ranks. Society cannot expect women to give up their career for the men’s career or having the men decide where to move next based on his career choices/opportunities while her career counts just as much!

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Dr Christina Pavloudi, Postdoctoral Researcher, Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (Greece): I think that the current situation for women and girls in science is not better than in other work places, if not worse. I have experienced gender inequality several times in my career. Some years ago I even needed to have a man with me repeating what I want and what should be done in order for my opinion to be heard, even if that man was not as good at his job as me and despite the fact that my boss knew it.

…our society, based on the way it is built, and the economic system of the western world, are unforgiving to women who decide to raise a family…

Women are striving more in science to achieve the ideal, yet unreal, balance between work and personal time. The fact that in science there is a majority of women at the PhD and early PostDoc level which sadly is converted into a minority at the Researcher level is one of the proofs that our society, based on the way it is built, and the economic system of the western world, are unforgiving to women who decide to raise a family and step away for a period of time.

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Dr Maja Rischer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): I myself have not yet experienced any gender bias up to this point in my career. But this may also be due to the fact that I myself was supervised by a highly inspiring female group leader with a child and was therefore always motivated and valued. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence from across the research, which shows that it sadly exists.

Women are often expected to work harder than men in order to show that they have the same leadership skills…

Women are often expected to work harder than men in order to show that they have the same leadership skills and that they are not limited in their performance by, for example, children. Of course this is not feasible, children need a lot of attention and time and therefore women who have decided to pursue a scientific career with a child should be encouraged more and more.

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Farzaneh Pourmasoumi, PhD Student, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): I believe where we are now in terms of being accepted, appreciated and acknowledged across all disciplines in science (or at least in life sciences) is a thousand light years better than where we were not so long ago back in 1970s. Now we have all the possible means to study and persue our dreams of having a meaningful career where we could make a difference.

…we are living with the ugly mind-set of men being looked upon more favourably than women with same qualifications and achievements…

However it is discouraging if not frustrating to know and see that still, in the 21st century, we are living with the ugly mind-set of men being looked upon more favourably than women with same qualifications and achievements in an professional highly intellectual environment, where only your contributions and achievements should speak for your worth and not your gender. It goes without saying that it is on any bases unacceptable to agree to pay women a lower salary than a male colleague doing the same exact job solely based on their gender.

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What do you think are the best ways to support and invest in women and girls in science?

Prof. Ilse Jacobsen, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): What we need is a general change of perception in society, so that it is normal and acceptable for a man to invest time and energy into family life – rather than having to justify this decision.

…we need to encourage women and girls to make use of the career opportunities they have without seeing this as ‘placing career above family’

And on the other side we need to encourage women and girls to use of the career opportunities they have without seeing this as ‘placing career above family’.

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Dr Patricia Bernal, Junior Research Group Leader, Universidad de Sevilla (Spain): The best way to support women in science is by listening to women to understand the complexity of the problem and implement policies that can make a real change. These policies need to tackle different angles and be integrative to be successful and overcome the fear of the male community being uncomfortable with these decisions.

Educating girls and boys in gender equality will greatly reduce the unconscious bias and stereotypes of the future scientists…

I am more optimistic for the future generations, citing Nelson Mandela “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Educating girls and boys in gender equality will greatly reduce the unconscious bias and stereotypes of the future scientists and society will be ready for other important changes that will impact female scientist e.g. more equilibrated numbers in the gender of the family caregivers.

The International Women’s and Girls’ Day in Science celebrated every 11th of February since 2016 is changing society thanks to the voluntary work of thousands of female scientists, priceless role models that are showing the world that female scientists rock.

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Dr Sarah Wettstadt, Postdoctoral Researcher, Estacion Experimental de Zaidin, Granada (Spain): I think women in science need a lot of understanding from society right now. Hence, it would be good to support women by showing that these women have the same right as men to kick some goals in science, climb the career ladder, while having a normal family life as well as friends and hobbies.

…we can all try to change this picture of a successful scientist being a man with a devoting wife and once in a while let it be a women with a supporting husband.

It needs to be more accepted in society for men to take care of the kids, household or make compromises regarding their careers. In my opinion, to change this way of thinking of society will take even longer, but we can all try to change this picture of a successful scientist being a man with a devoting wife and once in a while let it be a women with a supporting husband.

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Dr Christina Pavloudi, Postdoctoral Researcher, Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (Greece): All the working places, from universities to research centers, should have specific rooms for lactation and/or breastfeeding. Pregnancy period and maternity leave should not be considered when setting the age limits for grant proposals. Since women are fighting gender inequality for years before entering the science field, there could be specific research grants only for women PIs.

All the working places, from universities to research centers, should have specific rooms for lactation and/or breastfeeding

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Dr Maja Rischer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): Women in science should receive special support to make up for any time ‘lost’ through childcare. I also think it is particularly important to have facilities at the workplace, and especially at conferences, with childcare. A quota for women in higher positions is certainly worthy of discussion, but if this is done, every precaution should be taken to ensure that men do not claim that women were only hired because they are women.

..the younger generation in particular has understood that women should be supported and promoted in the same way and have not fallen for the outdated image of women

In general, women in science can certainly be promoted more by a rethinking of the older generation of men. This is difficult to do, but I think that the younger generation in particular has understood that women should be supported and promoted in the same way and have not fallen for the outdated image of women. It is going in the right direction, but it will still take a while before women have the same opportunities in higher positions as men.

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Farzaneh Pourmasoumi, PhD Student, Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, Jena (Germany): It is my opinion creating and providing support for young women and girls is a multi-layered effort that has its roots in the most primary unit of our societies, the families and later on schools. I believe empowering women at the very early age, breaking the mould that women are programmed for less demanding rolls would provide a good starting point to tackle this long standing issue.

I believe empowering women at the very early age, breaking the mould that women are programmed for less demanding roles…

Also changing the mind-set that the heavy weight of raising a family lays mainly on the women’s shoulders, and allowing for longer paternity leaves for men to share and ease off the duty from women are other ways to support women in their persuade of a meaningful career. Providing better and more affordable child care would also greatly encourage women to take on board more serious and devoting rolls. It goes without saying that staying at home should be a decision made based on an individuals choice, rather than a must-be-made-scarifice on the women’s part for having and raising a family.

Read more on excellence from women in STEM with this collection of articles from the FEMS Journals, put together for International Women’s Day (8th March)

 

 

 

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