International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2023: female progress even with nuances

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Unstoppable female advance in science, except in STEM careers and professorships

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Consuelo León Llorente, International University of Catalonia

Female academics and researchers in Europe are still at a clear disadvantage compared to their male colleagues. They reach in a greater proportion to the chairs and to the management of departments, as well as to the government of the universities, according to the U-Multirank Report, a tool that presents more than 30 indicators around teaching, learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional participation in 2,200 institutions in 96 countries.

This same study indicates that women represent half of bachelor's and master's students, being slightly lower among doctoral students (48 %) and academic staff (45 %). However, it is in the category of full professors, the equivalence to professors in the English-speaking world, where the distance in the scissors lengthens: 29 % of professors compared to 71 % of professors. As for the rectors and vice-chancellors, the proportion is 1 to 5.

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According to data from 96 countries, women represent half of bachelor's and master's students, but only 29% of professors. U-Multirank Gender Monitor 2022, Author provided

Regarding female researchers, in educational institutions with a high endowment of resources, the female presence is also lower: they represent 24 %, reaching 36 % when it comes to centers with a lower percentage of investment allocated to research.

In terms of fields of knowledge, institutions with a majority of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have fewer female students and fewer female academic staff. In contrast, women exceed 50 % in areas such as nursing, social work, education and psychology.

A positive aspect is that there are areas of knowledge with a more balanced representation between men and women, such as business sciences, political science, history and chemistry.

Why does this cultural and educational pattern persist? The importance of good role models during early childhood and primary schooling, professional guidance in high school, professional decision-making upon completion of university studies, and the dynamics of the work culture of universities may be behind these differences.

The female presence decreases as their academic level advances

In Spain, according to the CYD Report 2021/2022 The presence of women among teaching and research staff (PDI) has increased in the last 5 years, especially in the position of university professor (increase of 4.3 points). However, it is still the category with the lowest female participation: 25.6 % of professors are women, a notable difference if we take into account that women represent 43.3 % of the total PDI.

This same report indicates that there are more women enrolled in universities than men. The data is more than significant because it indicates a clear trend: the advancement and desire for improvement of women in the university. However, the female presence decreases as their academic level advances.

Although there has been slow and sustained growth in the last 20 years, the report also questions the low presence of women in degrees linked to STEM careers. An example: only in IT does it not reach 14 %. It is shocking because in these areas more and better job offers are being generated in the context of the emergence of new professions.

Only a quarter of female professors in Catalonia

Also in Catalonia, according to data provided by the Department of Research and Universities (UNEIX, 2021), the reality is very similar: 25.5 % of female professors compared to 74.5 % of male professors. According to this same source, in Catalonia there is also the paradox that the overrepresentation of women in undergraduate and master's studies (60/40 % in favor of women) is reversed in pre- and post-doctoral scholarships (58/42 % in favor of men).

One can speak, therefore, of a clear horizontal segregation in the choice of studies, as well as a vertical segregation or glass ceiling in academic progression. This segregation affects both the advancement of the research career, especially in the figure of professors, and the presence in positions of responsibility in university management.

How to reverse the trend

In this situation, what can we do? A report published by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering titled Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering It offered a possible diagnosis as well as measures to reverse this trend in the United States.

According to this report, the low presence of women in STEM fields and at the highest academic levels is a consequence of external factors that have nothing to do with their capacity, interest and technical skills. The origin lies rather in what academic literature has traditionally included under the name “glass ceilings.”

These ceilings have to do with certain organizational barriers in academic institutions. But also with different experiences by gender of the demands of work and family, which affect decision-making about one's own academic career. An established academic culture is also detected in which there is an underrepresentation of women in decision-making and academic leadership positions, a fact that in turn can hold back PDI women from the challenge of achieving these positions.

Faced with this glass ceiling, some women may impose self-imposed barriers marking their trajectories: what experts call implicit biases. We could call them “cement ceilings,” which are more difficult to break because they depend on a change of perspective in certain areas or positions especially occupied by men, such as STEM careers and management positions.

To reverse this trend, a skillful combination of external measures, corporate culture, female educational references in these areas and, above all, an improvement in female determination and self-concept is necessary. The will is a door that only opens from within each person.

Working on references and feminine self-concept is important

At what point and why are women's brilliant careers lost or directed to other sectors far from research and science? It is necessary to address this issue from the academy with rigor and courage, especially within the framework of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which we celebrate every February 11.

Maybe the example [of scientists] who did overcome these and other more forceful and explicit barriers, such as Hypatia of Alexandria or Hildegard of Bingen in Antiquity, Anne Conway in the Modern era, or Ada Lovelace in the 19th century and of course! Rosalind Franklin, a decisive woman in the discovery of DNA, or Margarita Salas, who initiated the development of molecular biology and Piedad de la Cierva who led a civilian laboratory in a military environment can serve as inspiration for us. Their lives undoubtedly speak of clear determination.

It is in our hands to become aware of this progress, but also of the pending challenges. Educational institutions, from primary education to university, can assume this role. It is about continuing to work on the design of measures that make female talent visible and inspire future generations. This change in the work and educational culture will make it possible for all talent with a future to flourish, including those girls who once wanted to be scientists.The Conversation

Consuelo León Llorente, Head of the Equality and Inclusion Unit and Director of the Family Policies Observatory. Joaquim Molins Figueras Childcare and Family Policies Chair., International University of Catalonia

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.