The recognition of women in science

Iulia Nechifor and Giuseppe Pellegrini

The presence of women in science is constantly expanding. Inspection of data from the most recent surveys set out in this book shows the increasing interest of women in scientific careers and the good results that they have achieved, as well as their ability to gain qualifications that in some cases surpass those of their male counterparts. However, this tendency does not receive support from policies for employment and research. There is a lack, amongst other things, of incisive actions on research funding to ensure adequate pay levels and opportunities for women to occupy positions of decision-making responsibility. Of course, there are significant differences among countries – as regards both access by women to scientific careers and opportunities for them to occupy senior positions in the governance of research. In some countries, also by virtue of the quota system, women have been able to increase their influence on the government’s responsibilities and roles. Measures of this kind are intended to prevent phenomena such as ‘the old boys network’, which restricts the access of women to research groups because of tacit accords among male researchers. Also in regard to the work/life balance, measures have been recently introduced to favour the career progress of women with their maternity-related needs borne in mind. Much still remains to be done, however, and especially to ensure the mobility of women with children and families.

These aspects concern the presence and contribution made by women to science at research centres, universities and government institutions. Their presence has been promoted by the work of national and European bodies and institutions that have paid specific attention to the female issue by adopting initiatives to enhance the opportunities available to women. Such organizations favour access by women to funding, their consideration in cases when there are candidates of different sex but equal worth, actions to enhance the life/work balance, and measures to reduce inequalities. All these actions have produced results evidenced by numerous scientific studies published in 2009, in particular documents published by the European Union concerning the scientific careers of women and their access to research funding.

Besides the institutional initiatives just mentioned, this book contains numerous data highlighting important changes in women’s perception of science and their distinctive contribution to the international scientific community. This has been made possible by the endeavour in recent years to give voice to the female point of view, represent it, and make it publicly known.

We believe, however, that a distinctive feature of the relationship between women and science has been neglected by the discussion on women’s role in science: its recognition. By “recognition” we mean the ability of women and society to set value on the female point of view, the purpose being not only to open spaces until recently precluded to women, but also to give new impetus to creative scientific action by having women participate in the definition of objectives and propose innovative directions for research. Only if this type of recognition is fostered will it be possible to develop a more encompassing vision of scientific activity representative of the gender difference proposed by women.

If the women cannot participate in decisions on research priorities and methods, and on the issues to be investigated, there will be no full recognition of their presence. These deficits will give the younger generation the impression that there are no prestigious posts available to women in science, and therefore that it is pointless to pursue a scientific career.

As shown by the contributions in the first part of the book, young people are anything but indifferent to science. However, they should receive particular attention from the first years of school onwards, so that gender difference becomes a potential, not an insuperable obstacle. This applies not only to women but also to men, because there also exist forms of male segregation in some fields of research. To be stressed in this regard is that many European countries have introduced gender-centred training schemes which valorise male and female in order to counter stereotypes and preconceptions.

Many studies on women and science emphasise the importance of taking precocious action so that the school careers of girls can turn into real scientific careers (PRAGES 2009). We believe that following and rewarding the merit of girls from the moment when their talent is first manifest is an important strategy with which to develop forms of accompaniment and mentoring which enable young female scientists to grow. Such action requires the close involvement of both male and female teachers in proposing a science free from gender conditionings. Science and technology can benefit greatly if they are open to both genders without forced segregations or stereotyped divisions of roles.

Moreover, not to be forgotten is the role that public communication can perform in reinforcing an idea of science as unreservedly open to both genders. The representation of the male or female scientist should no longer be connected to some or other historical figure. Instead it should be modified to offer opportunities to males and females without distinction. It is obvious that the media can make a major contribution in this regard. They can give greater space to the achievements of young people by reporting unexpected and innovative careers in areas where men or women have traditionally predominated. Highlighting the presence of women in physics or of men in biology and in laboratories, for example, can dispel long-standing conceptions which restrict the innovative contributions of future scientists.

In short, we maintain that emphasising the contribution that women can make to science and technology today is important for enlarging our vision of the world: not just to expand the careers of women, therefore, but also to furnish new opportunities for all the men and women of the future.

Giuseppe Pellegrini teaches Methodology of Social Research at the University of Padova, Italy. He is a member of Observa Scientific Committee and he coordinates section “Science and citizens”.

Iulia Nechifor is responsible for programs of Science Policy and Gender Equality at UNESCO of Venice – BRESCE United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.