The current problems of women in science


Surely, when reading this article, there will be those who think if it is really necessary to dedicate a day to women and girls in science. Is it that our young women do not have the opportunity to choose the professional option they prefer? In fact, myself, when I was studying biology, I thought that the battle for equality was something totally over and that my professional opportunities would depend on my abilities, perhaps also a bit on luck, but in no case on my gender.

However, when I had to face the world of work, I found that reality was not so simple. I realized that society’s expectations of men and women were quite different. In them, competitiveness or placing work in the highest area of ​​their value scale were qualities to be appreciated. In us, those same attributes were considered “flaws” or, at best, unfeminine qualities.

We were not explicitly told not to pursue professions that required a lot of time and effort. But it was expected of us that our dedication to the family would always take precedence over our professional aspirations. And if you didn’t, something was wrong with you.

Several decades have passed since I was a college student. However, I am very much afraid that the situation that I have expressed above has not undergone much change. A study by the Camilo José Cela University indicates that, in Spain, only 16.3 percent of 15-year-old adolescents plan to dedicate themselves professionally to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas. Of them, only 4.2 percent are students.

What is the reason for the low preference of girls for STEM careers?

The easy answer is that gender determines tastes in part and that is why girls do not opt ​​for scientific careers. Another answer, a little more uncomfortable, is that there are social conditions that make women think that our professional orientation should go elsewhere. Those conditionings can be so deeply ingrained that we come to think that we are deciding freely.

One of the reasons why girls and adolescents may not be inclined towards STEM careers is the lack of female role models. As some studies support , when young children are asked to draw a scientist, the most normal thing is that they draw a man. And it is not surprising, since, when one searches the Internet for images of famous scientists, mostly men appear.

It’s not just that there are great female scientists from the past whose achievements have been forgotten for years and years. Furthermore, the elite of science today is still dominated by men. And that means that women continue to have little say in high-level scientific decisions, such as the areas of research that should be prioritized or the distribution of funds allocated to each of them.

This lack of references is one of the reasons why initiatives such as those of 11F are so necessary to make the work of women scientists visible. It is not about convincing anyone of anything, but it is about showing that there may be women who are dedicated to science and who succeed in their profession. And that they do it being normal people, with the same tastes, worries and concerns as the rest of the mortals.

Scientists are not freaks, nor were we the crazy ones in the class in our student days!

One thing I can assure you is that we really enjoy our work. Although science is quite a demanding activity, it is also very generous and gives back very important things. Among them, the satisfaction of doing creative work in which you are continually learning and, sometimes, also correcting. Well-understood science forces you to be humble, because what you give today as a certainty may have to be corrected tomorrow based on new evidence. And that is a very important life lesson.

The power of unconscious biases

If we look at the statistics of the most prestigious prizes in the world, the Nobel Prizes, from the beginning of the last century to the present, it can be seen that the number of women who have won them in the scientific categories (Physics, Chemistry and Medicine) is an absolute minority that barely reaches 3% . In fact, in the year 2021, none of these awards went to a woman.

A distribution like that cannot be the product of chance. Rather it indicates that something is failing in society.

It is unlikely that the Swedish academy has a dislike for women, but it is true that the merits of men and women are not judged in the same way. There is a well-known study , carried out with an invented curriculum, which was reproduced more than a hundred times and sent to researchers, with the intention that it be valued for obtaining a job.

The result was that when a man’s name appeared on the resume, it was consistently more highly valued than when it was signed by a woman. And the bias was the same when the raters were male or female. In other words, we make the same mistakes as men when it comes to judging our work. Which is not strange, since we have been educated in the same society.

When did we start belittling our work like that? Well, it seems that at a very young age. Again, it is time to cite another study , carried out with a significant number of girls and boys, in which it is shown that, already at the age of six, girls believe that members of their own gender are less smart than boys and, when they are offered to participate in an activity that supposedly requires intelligence, they refuse to participate to a much greater extent than they do.

However, when the proposal is to participate in something that requires a lot of work capacity, the girls do volunteer. This is very important, because what we believe we are capable of greatly influences our aspirations. If at six years old we believe we are inferior, it will be very difficult for us to show our achievements when we grow up. And we will end up becoming invisible.

Is it that women do not like to be leaders?

If we analyze the distribution by gender at the different levels of the scientific scales, we will find a distribution that is repeated in practically all the Universities and Public Research Organizations. Specifically, while in the lower scales the percentages of men and women are similar, in higher level positions the proportion of men is clearly higher. It seems that women leave more and also that we settle for positions that require less responsibility.

Again we have to go back to the stereotypes and the different expectations of society. In this case, regarding an issue such as caring for children and dependents. These are extremely important tasks that should be valued so that all of us, men and women, are proud to carry them out.

Even so, it must be recognized that they are hard tasks, that require time and that can take a professional toll. That is why it is necessary that there be efficient conciliation measures and that these measures are not only accessible to women. If so, anyone with the ability to hire will prefer to incorporate men into their workforce.

Some advice that I find difficult to comply with

I would like to end all these reflections with a few tips, especially for girls. Some advice that I still have a hard time complying with sometimes:

  • Do not wait to be perfect to show what you are capable of.
  • Do not feel guilty if you have to delegate some “women’s” tasks to other people.
  • And, above all, do not give up before trying!

Author Bio:Esther Lazarus Lazarus is Scientific Researcher of the Public Research Organizations. Specialized in virus evolution at the Astrobiology Center (INTA-CSIC)