Women and science: can we break the glass ceiling?

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The theme of gender equality has taken a central place in the debate between institutions, social partners, industry and in all spheres of social and professional life. Scientific research is not an exception to this, as its problems are similar to those in other professional sectors.

In the last few years the more important international organisations, starting from the United Nations and the European Commission, have also recognized the extreme importance of achieving gender equality in the scientific and technological sector.
There are several considerations as to why is it necessary to give importance to women in the field.
First and foremost it’s an obvious matter of human rights and social justice, in the sense that all individuals should have the same opportunities to have access to scientific education and equally benefit from progress in science and technology. Secondly, a lack or limited presence of women in scientific research means a great loss of competence and talent, with serious consequences for the entire scientific and technological sector in terms of productivity and competitiveness. At last, giving importance to women’s talent means giving importance to the diversity and specific contributions that women can make to research because of their innate qualities, such as sensitiveness, intuition, motivation and attitude towards work.

These important considerations have paved the way to numerous initiatives and specific programmes in Europe, which have already provided some clear results. In fact, according to figures from the European Commission, the number of woman scientists is increasing and 50% of human resources in the entire scientific field consists of women, who often prove they have better capabilities and skills than their male colleagues.
Even so, the goal of real gender equality is still far from being achieved, since woman researchers have to deal with the same problems that affect most other professional sectors. In fact, women are only well represented in some scientific fields, such as biology and medicine, whereas they are excluded from other disciplines, which are still considered male prerogatives. In addition to this kind of ‘horizontal’ discrimination, the differences become especially evident from a ‘vertical’ point of view, if we think of the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon which keeps young female researchers from getting on in their career.
As a matter of fact, even though women in Europe represent 50% of the total number of graduates in scientific disciplines, woman researchers only constitute 29% of the total number of European researchers and this percentage gets smaller as we climb the professional ladder (only 23% of professors are women). Besides this, women are practically absent in decision-making commissions and works councils.

Even if there are more and more statistics available on the presence and participation of women in the scientific and technological sector in Europe, there isn’t much information about perceptions, motivations, opinions and possible prejudice with regards to gender in the professional field.

A particularly interesting contribution in this respect can be found in the first findings of an Italian research team consisting of scientists and science sociologists who carried out research into the staff of two European research networks. This research is one of the activities of Gender Action Plans of the Integrated Project SABRE (Cutting Edge Genomics for Sustainable Animal Breeding) and the Network of Excellence EADGENE (European Animal Disease Genomics Network of Excellence for Animal Health and Food Safety), with respectively 200 and 130 scientists from 14 and 10 European countries involved in genomic research applied to zootechnical species. The survey was coordinated by the Parco Tecnologico Padano di Lodi, a research centre for agricultural and food biotechnologies, with the collaboration of experts from Observa – Science in SocietyI a cultural non-profit association that promotes research, reflection and debate on the relationship between science and society, and supports dialogue between researchers, policy makers and citizens.
The aim of the research was, on the one hand, to monitor possible gender differences in terms of recruiting, course and progression of career and, on the other hand, evaluate the manner in which gender issues are perceived by the individual researchers and how they determine their professional and private life. In order to do this, a structured questionnaire was given to the entire staff of the two networks.

In general, the survey confirms the European trends. First of all, even if most of the interviewed researchers of both sexes think that women have all the necessary intellectual requirements and technical abilities to make an important contribution to science, there is a clear gender imbalance in these two networks too.
Above al,l most apical positions (e.g. head of department, director etc.) are occupied by men, whereas almost half of the women interviewed complain about being excluded from important decisions and more responsible positions.
Secondly, men benefit from better contractual conditions as they are on open-ended contracts, while women are more often employed with short-term contracts or scholarships.
Partly, these differences can be led back to women’s age in the two research networks, as they are on average younger than their male colleagues. Research results suggest that many women tend to be more actively involved in research in the first years in their career, while their professional ambitions give way to family priorities as they get older. And it is exactly this problem of having to reconcile a career with a family that is perceived by most researchers, both men and women, as one of the main obstacles for reaching gender equality in the scientific sector.
A second obstacle, according to the researchers’ findings, concerns the often self-discriminatory attitude of women themselves with regards to their professional position. More than half of the interviewees in fact seem to think that women are not capable of obtaining higher positions and are even less willing to fight for their career than men are, also because they don’t want to adopt their male colleagues’ aggressive behaviour.

On the whole, the general findings and the abovementioned aspects in particular suggest that there are at least two ways in which the participation of women can be promoted at all levels in the field of science.
The first step concerns the education of future scientists, which cannot be limited to technical aspects, but also has to include psychological and behavioural elements, in order to encourage young woman researchers to show more determination and a more positive attitude towards themselves and their professional position, so they will be able to compete with their male colleagues more easily.
Secondly, it is clear that gender politics cannot limit themselves to attempts – however useful – to reconcile career with having a family, but also have to try to overcome some traditional ideas about career and role patterns. For example, recruiting criteria and career incentives should also recognize the value of characteristics like the willingness to collaborate with colleagues, to contribute to colleagues’ professional growth, and to share knowledge and information, and should award an open and interdisciplinary approach to science, in order to encourage a collaborative rather than a competitive work attitude.

Simona Palermo and Elisabetta Giuffra are researchers at Parco Tecnologico Padano and co-founders of the association FAiR – Fairness and Accountability in Research, FAiR – Fairness and Accountability in Research.

Article published in the Italian magazine “D.a. – La rivista per superare le barriere culturali”, VIII, 3, Dec 2007 and translated by Marije De Hesse.