Make female scientists visible, break stereotypes


The molecular biologist Margarita Salas , one of the most important Spanish scientists of all time, said that there was a time when, despite having already started her scientific career, some colleagues referred to her as ‘Eladio’s wife’. “I knew what it was to be discriminated against or, what’s more, to be invisible,” she declared. Something that, although it may seem like an anecdote, is far from being an exception. Moreover, this ‘invisibility’ has been an unwritten norm in the scientific and research trajectory of many, many women.

Fighting this invisibility of women scientists is one of the reasons that motivate the celebration of the International Day of the Girl and Woman in Science every February 11. A day in which we vindicate the need to promote female references in research and in the technological field, to break stereotypes and promote scientific vocations among young women.

Getting more women to direct their future towards science also means increasing the possibilities of promoting research with a gender perspective. In such a way that progress is made towards a science of higher quality, more complete and that benefits the whole of society (women and men). As stated by Audrey Azoulay , Director General of UNESCO, with this “humanity can only win, just like science.”

The challenge is not small nor will it be easy to achieve. According to the Scientists in Figures report , the percentage of female researchers in Spain stands at 39%. It is true that it represents an advance of eight percentage points compared to two decades ago, but, if we maintain this rate of growth, the objective established by the Strategy of the European Research Area that half of the scientific staff in Europe are women will be achieved in 2045, fifteen years later than planned. And that if current growth is maintained, because since 2009 the percentage is stagnant at 39%.

7.6% of female references in secondary school books

There are other data that are also worrying. For example, according to different studies, the textbooks used in secondary education, precisely in an educational stage in which the academic future begins to be determined, and therefore work, barely contain 7.6% of female references, or only 12% of academic appointments correspond to women.

The leap to universities, where 70% of research is generated in Spain, does not improve the situation. In fact, despite the fact that women make up 57% of the total student body, in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees, female enrollment barely reaches 28%. Some data that represents a setback. To cite an example. Just two decades ago, women accounted for more than 60% of the student body enrolled in mathematics, a percentage that now falls short of 40%.

Underrepresentation in STEM careers

The underrepresentation of women in STEM is even more surprising when we know that, in both the science and engineering branches, female students obtain a performance rate (credits exceeded over those enrolled) up to six percentage points higher than that of male students. men, and a success rate (exceeded credits of those presented) also higher.

This inequality is especially worrisome when the main employment niches are in the technology sector, with a tendency to increase rapidly in post-covid society. Therefore, if we do not improve the percentage of women in STEM fields, we run the risk of a double gender gap: in studies and in the labor market.

There are many causes that explain this imbalance: the prejudices and gender stereotypes that link girls and young women, especially to care (hence the feminization of studies such as Teaching, Medicine or Nursing); the need for more examples of female leadership in these areas; the difficulties added by motherhood, or gender bias in the selection and promotion processes of scientific personnel.

The University has to react

Faced with this situation, universities have the opportunity, and the duty, to react and become agents of change to advance towards a science, and therefore also towards a more egalitarian society. And so we have assumed. Innovatia 8.3 ; Women with science ; They are Pioneers ; SUPERA (for the acronym in English of Supporting the promotion of equality in research and academia); The UJI-Lamarr or Girls 4 STEM programs are some of the many initiatives that have emerged on Spanish campuses to recognize the role of women in science, technology and innovation and thus break the stereotypes that hold back the vocations of girls and young people .

This commitment to equality is also institutional. CRUE Spanish Universities has for the first time a Delegation of the Presidency for Equality Policies , and has incorporated equality as a transversal value in its recent University 2030 strategy.

The pandemic widens the gender gap

The objective we pursue is none other than to continue advancing in gender equality. To this end, we intend to promote, in collaboration with governments –central and autonomous–, measures to balance the presence of women and men in the various professional categories of Teaching and Research Personnel (PDI); eliminate gender bias in the student body and the Administration and Services Personnel (PAS); advance in co-responsible conciliation; correct the gender gap in research, and continue to visualize and promote female leadership in research, transfer and innovation.

For this reason also, this February 11, 2021, which is celebrated in the midst of a pandemic that is widening the gender gap in science, we claim to continue moving forward to meet the objectives set by the United Nations General Assembly to promote the full participation of women and girls, and contribute to the recognition of women scientists.

It would not be reasonable, nor smart, to waste half the talent of the world’s population and, even less, in the face of challenges as profound as digital transformation, the new green transition or the take-off of digital intelligence.

Author Bio: Eva Alcón Soler is Rector of the Universitat Jaume I (UJI) of Castellón and delegate of the Presidency of the CRUE for Equality Policies at Universitat Jaume I