World needs science and science needs women

Publicação: 9 de March de 2022

Despite having made huge gains to increase their representation in science in recent years, women are still significantly underrepresented in the world

The invisibility of women is a daily challenge, especially in areas such as science, where their career depends on being recognized for their intellectual contributions to their field

When we talk about a scientist, it is the picture of a man in a lab that comes to mind, right? We think of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and many others. But women have circumvented machismo and generated great contributions to the development of the sciences. And the pandemic has highlighted many of them. Did you know that some of the most important studies to combat the new coronavirus came from women? Among them, the work of two Brazilian scientists who played an essential role in the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the research of other scientists in Brazil whose studies with ribonucleic acid (RNA) led to a technology applicable to vaccines for Covid-19. We should also not forget that the discovery of DNA, Y and X chromosomes and the HIV virus were also female achievements.

Dr. Luana Lorena Rodrigues, professor and researcher at the Federal University of Western Pará (Ufopa) points out that currently women, as scientists, can act in any area of knowledge and in any position. “It may seem obvious, but we have the competence to work in the exact sciences and technology, lead research groups, lead renowned educational and research institutions, in addition to receiving mentions and awards that recognize the merit of our achievements in science, as they are technical competence activities that should not, in any way, be conditioned to gender, race or parenting,” she says. Also according to her, although it is everyone’s responsibility, it is the woman’s role to seek equity in the academy as scientist and researcher pointing out situations that directly threaten their productivity, performance and consequently the progression in the career as a scientist. For her, the role of women in science is diverse and, therefore, does not exempt the need to evolve the development of affirmative actions and policies aimed at avoiding the deepening of gender, race and motherhood inequalities as contributing factors in female under-representation in science.

Dr. Rodrigues says that throughout her career she faced many challenges, starting with her academic career, since she was born and studied until high school in the interior of the state of Pará. The long study journey from undergraduate to doctorate brought her the experience of living alone in capitals and abroad, without close family support, which took her out of the comfort zone and gave her a lot of learning and maturity, since she moved out of her family’s home very young. Today the challenge she faces is to do excellent research and have high impact productivity to progress as a scientist. “Currently, I am a professor at a young university located on the outskirts of the state of Pará, which has a structure for research that has been strengthening, but still very limited to carry out medical and biomedical research in the areas that I work directly. On the other hand, there are serious health problems in this region and the results of these studies can bring impacts beyond scientific, social and environmental in the short, medium and long term,” she says. Dr. Rodrigues assures that it is challenging to remain in this double profession, the first being to be a teacher at Ufopa, training new health professionals and often devalued, and the second being to be a researcher and scientist in a national scenario of few resources and with the aggravating factor of the absence of the minimum infrastructure to carry out research in the areas it operates and, also, exercising an invisible and sometimes hostile profession in society, with the advent of media polarization about science resulting from the Covid-19. pandemic. However, for her, particularly the biggest challenge she faces is to reconcile her career as a scientist and motherhood. “No doubt this is a challenge that for me, and certainly for many mothers and some fathers, is sometimes lonely, painful and overwhelmed,” she regrets.

Academics Mariana Kurashima, Bruna Luiza de Graaf Kamchen and Estefani Namie Nishimoto, representatives of the League of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine (LIMT) of the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre (UFCSPA) also admit that reconciling a woman’s professional life in science and personal life is probably the most difficult part for everyone today. According to them, most women end up choosing to focus on one of the lifestyles: either professional life or family. Those who choose the family focus on careers that allow flexible hours (which is difficult in science) that allow them to take care of the home and children. Those who focus on the profession usually end up having more opportunities, but, at the same time, they face a prejudice from society that sees them as incomplete women, for not having married or had children. For the academics, this reality is very different from the experience that men have. Few are those who need to make the decision of which direction to take in the profession wondering if they will have time to take care of their children or maintain their homes. “The reconciliation of professional and personal life will eventually be achieved with gender equity, distribution of roles and equal salaries”, they point out recalling that the most important achievement of women in science is the presence in places that 20, 50, 100 years ago were not occupied by them. “If before women were restricted to basic care professions such as literacy and the infirmary, today we find women in leadership positions, laboratories, university rooms, involved in creative and entrepreneurial work,” they add. To Dr. Rodrigues, the woman should definitely not have to choose between professional life and her personal decisions such as becoming a mother, this is so retrograde that changes are urgent and does not match what the scientific academy preaches, being an environment of evolution of knowledge and breaking paradigms considered as absolute truths within society.

Although women have made huge gains to increase their representation in science in recent years, they are still significantly under-represented in the world. According to the 2021 Science Report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), they account for 33% of the total number of researchers and are only 12% in national science institutions. Another UNESCO report Women in higher education: has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities? shows that women accounted for a slightly higher percentage (53%) of graduates and masters in 2014, but at the doctoral level the proportion of female graduates drops to 44%. In 2018, women accounted for 43% of teachers in higher education, compared to 66% and 54% in primary and secondary education, respectively. However, regardless of the encouraging statistics on women’s access to higher education, there are obstacles to occupying key academic positions in universities, participating in relevant research, and assuming leadership roles.

LIMT academics recognize that women are in the majority in undergraduate and graduate programs, but as careers advance in academia, they tend to become minorities. For them, the academic advancement and the correlation with the decrease of women in this environment are unfortunately still linked to the role that women play within their families and the social status that they are historically inserted in. “Countless women see the scenario of science as an unfavorable environment for someone who intends to reconcile academic and research professional life with the life of a mother. There is a lack of aid for these mother scientists, so the promotion of public policies that make the male role more active from the perspective of motherhood is important to balance this weight”, they emphasize.

Dr. Rodrigues agrees. “In addition, our work implies an excessive physical and mental workload, sometimes superhuman, related to the well-known unequal division of domestic work between men and women and which worsened during the pandemic, directly impacting the academic productivity of women,” she points out. Also according to her, these differences related to gender/sex, race and/or parenting that affect the performance and production of women have been increasingly the object of study and scientific evidence has been supporting this. “Let us see for example in virtual libraries the studies published with descriptors ‘science workforce, diversity or science gender’ or even the work and initiative of the group ‘Parent in Science’. This is truly relevant, because it comes from a context of invisibility and starts to have concrete data that need to be discussed and considered for the development of actions and policies that aim to avoid the deepening of gender, race and motherhood inequalities “, she adds.

Research by the British Council, released in September 2021, shows that women occupy only 2% of leadership positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers and suffer marked ethnic inequality. Also according to the research, in Brazil, women are the majority among undergraduate and doctoral students. Despite this, under-representation begins at the university teaching level and grows as leadership positions grow and become more political. The study also points out that the participation of black researchers is 26% and that of indigenous people does not reach 1%. Regarding gender, among scholarship holders, 59% are white, and black women represent 26.8%.

Science can engage women in a meaningful way

The involvement of women in the academic environment, consequently, in science has been growing over the decades, however there is still a gap in the issue of development and openness to them in this environment, since important research groups formed mostly by men are still perceived. “Fortunately, our university is an example of women’s inclusion in science, which fills the eyes of any girl who enters graduation and faces women at the forefront of large research projects, such as at UFCSPA. All this representativeness drives us graduates to develop without fear of oppression in a world we once were and, in some countries, we are still deprived of education. The more places we occupy in academia and science, the more willing other women will be to participate in this development that affects the lives of all human beings, to a greater or lesser degree, present and future. We hope that not only women, but also men will be interested and integrate into our daily struggle, in classrooms, laboratories, clinics, hospitals, etc. “, say the representatives of LIMT.

Dr. Rodrigues wants girls and young women to be inspired by successful female personalities in the career of a scientist, from leading names in the history of science such as Marie Curie and Dorothy Hodking, to more recent names such as Margareth Dalcolmo, Mariza Gonçalves Morgado, Jaqueline Goes de Jesus and even closer figures such as the researchers and advisors themselves within research and technology institutions, such as women who struggled to follow their dreams, study and work as researchers in the most diverse academic areas playing a leadership role. “Dismantling the culture and belief that science is exclusive to geniuses and gifted people represented by the male figure, reaffirming that science is a career for everyone and, therefore, achievable for girls and women if it is their choice,” she concludes. Finally, the researcher invites the academic community to reflect on how to change the under-representation of women in science influenced by gender, race and motherhood inequalities as pointed out by scientific evidence and, from there, normalize the community’s understanding of the need for changes in academic policies aimed at this fair equity. “I hope that as we move towards equity and recognition of a diverse science, the subtle pre-existing prejudice exercised by men and women in academia against women must naturally be diminished,” she concludes.

Female participation in publications

An Elsevier report entitled “The researcher journey through a gender Lens that looked at participation in research, career progression and perceptions in 26 thematic areas across the European Union and in 15 countries, including Brazil, showed that women, despite being the majority in several areas, such as biochemistry, nursing, medicine, neuroscience and immunology, have the lowest percentage of publications internationally, compared to men. According to the survey, although women’s participation in the research is increasing in general, inequality remains between countries of origin and in thematic areas in terms of publication results, citations, scholarships granted and collaborations. In all countries, the percentage of women who publish internationally is lower than that of men. Last year, Nature published in March, the woman’s month, an editorial entitled Women must not be obscured in science’s history, in which the journal said it was aware of how the literature of the history of science failed to recognize the scientific contributions of researchers, especially those from marginalized communities, and that the works of these researchers were not only obscured, but eliminated from the record. The editorial also draws attention to socio-cultural and socioeconomic aspects, in which the sciences are constituted.

Despite the debate about the recognition and participation of women in science and academia gaining more and more notoriety, the invisibility that makes women only considered collaborators, hardly protagonists of the discoveries, when, in fact, there are several writings that prove the effective presence of women in the great discoveries and in guaranteeing scientific and technological development in all epochs of history is undeniable. Overcoming invisibility is a daily challenge, especially in areas such as science, where your career depends on being recognized for your intellectual contributions to your field. We wish that every day more, women occupy their space in science, with due appreciation, recognition and respect. In the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT), for example, 60.55% of its members are women. Tropical Medicine can only achieve its objectives with the equal participation of women in all its dimensions.

Project encourages female participation in science

Bill PL 840/21 makes state policy the incentive to women’s participation in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics and information technology. The proposal includes the provision in the Law of Guidelines and Bases of National Education and in the Law of Technological Innovation. Learn more about the processing of bills.