February 26, 2021

Why do 75% of women never reach the highest positions?


Women represent only 21% of top-level research positions within the public university and 25% in Spanish public research organizations (OPIs). It is one of the many conclusions reached by the Study on the situation of young researchers, carried out by the Unit for Women and Science and presented this Thursday by the Ministry headed by Pedro Duque. The 88-page report is included in the Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated this February 11, and recent government proposals so that the investigation stop being a precarious sector, especially in the case of women.

Thanks to the participation of 5,600 professionals and a questionnaire sent to the main IPOs in our country, such as the CSIC, the ISCIII, the Aerospace Technique Institute (INTA) or the Center for Environmental and Technological Energy Research (CIEMAT), the report addresses precisely the situation of Spanish women in Science. And the results are not very promising.

One of the great consequences of this inequality is what is recognized in the sector as the metaphor of the “broken pipe” or leaking (leaky pipeline). It goes on to say that although women are represented more than or equal to men in the early stages of the research career, this proportion decreases as the rank rises. This metaphor explains the “scissor graph” or the “clamp graph”, which has become a constant in scientific gender analysis.

In the general field of research, women scientists do not represent a much lower percentage than their male counterparts. For example, in 2018, there were 234,7983 professionals in all sectors, public, private and higher education. In total, women made up 41% represented by 95,717 researchers. However, the gap between the percentages becomes more pronounced when the professional career is subdivided into stages. In the D grade or pre-doctoral stage, the figures are similar, exceeding them by 8 points to their peers in the case of OPIs. Moreover, according to the Ministry of Universities, in 2019 10,165 doctoral theses were approved in Spain, of which 5,106 corresponded to researchers and 5,059 to researchers.

Things get more complicated after the first 3 and 5 years of experience (the average of the duration of stage D). In the C, or postdoctoral phase that is subdivided into junior (3 years) and senior (8 years), the clamp or scissors begins to open even more. In B, the starting and stabilization phase of the scientific career, there are already 20 points of difference between men and women (60% male, 40% female). But where the scientists fare worse is when it comes to opting for the A recognition grade, the highest of all, as Research Professors at OPIs and Professor Professorships at the university.

In view of the long and arduous scientific career, there is also a difference according to age ranges. While the youngest section from 25 to 35 is equal, as they advance, the progressive difference between men and women begins to be seen, as can be seen in the following graph. The decline begins in the 45-55 age bracket, with an approximate ratio of 60-40. But in the case of people over 55 years of age, they already account for 65% of the scientific mass and they 35% both in public organizations and in the university. On the other hand, researchers over 65 o ad honorem71% are mostly men in IPOs and 75% in university.

In addition to the quantitative analysis, the report of the Ministry of Science also offers an evaluative impression based on surveys and scientific literature on inequality in the sector. To focus groups, this decline in women with increasing age and scale seems problematic and disappointing. In addition, they highlight that the small number of women in senior or decision-making positions within the scale produces the collateral effect that the same researchers are always called upon to participate in congresses, courts, and in the media.

Scientists also have shorter careers than their peers: 9.3 years on average for them and 11 years for them. This, according to the report, means that women suffer a 19.5% higher risk of dropping out of the research career, “which gives male scientists a great cumulative advantage over time,” says the study.

On the other hand, sexual harassment in the workplace is something to highlight as a potential disruptive element in the careers of professionals, causing disenchantment with the work they develop and even abandonment. In this survey, 10.8% of women acknowledge having witnessed these situations at work (compared to 12.2% of men) and 14% of them have happened in the first person. The report refers to other studies in this regard, such as one carried out from the European Union in 2012, where it was estimated that at least 54% of female scientists in Spain had suffered some type of sexual harassment.

Discrimination by scientific branches and “Matilda effect”

On the other hand, there is horizontal segregation of women in technological and engineering areas, while in other branches the representation of women and men reaches a balanced presence or even equal figures. Engineering and computer science, as fields that offer the best opportunities and account for more than 80% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs, are occupied more by men.

In 2018, young Spanish researchers represented 35% of the research staff in this area, contrasting with the percentage in medical and health sciences, where young women represent 65%, although that does not guarantee them reaching the highest positions either. , as the following scissor chart shows.

In the case of engineering and technology, women start at level D at 36% and, upon reaching A, their presence decreases to 16% compared to 84% of their counterparts. Something similar happens in the exact and natural sciences (43% in D and 22% in A). But even more abrupt is inequality in the case of the social sciences, where they lead the spectrum up to level B (51%), but in level A they suffer a plummet to 26%.

In 1955, female scientists who published were 12% of all authors, while in 2005 they were 35%. But in areas like math, physics, and computer science, women make up only 15% of authors. The report attributes this to the “hidden curriculum” as a generator of access barriers for girls with respect to traditionally masculine areas.

The lack of historical references in these branches is known as the “Matilda effect”, and it is something that today continues to make the work of scientists invisible. “A very pernicious Matilda effect can also occur in work teams, fed by our unconscious biases, which make us think that the happy idea, the great contribution, has been made by a man, and that the women on the team only contribute their hard work. work “, explained the president of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT). This has happened in the Nobel prizes, for example, where the findings of mixed teams have been many times overshadowed by those who climb the lectern to collect the award, mostly men.

Main conclusions and recommendations

In the last thirteen years, Spain has made great progress in public policies and legislative frameworks to implement strategies, plans and programs that have also benefited science on gender equality. Thus, Spanish universities and public research centers have been endowing themselves with equality plans and protocols against sexual harassment and harassment for reasons of sex, as well as equality units in charge of their implementation, development and application.

However, there is room for improvement. More and more young women are joining science, but not all are staying. Furthermore, the STEM branches show a significant lack of female talent and, as Minister Pedro Duque said, “that is like spoiling half of the great brains of humanity.” The report also bets, among the many things that must be changed, for a transformation of the roles that are established in the work teams, and that the dedication and competitiveness of the sector does not end up resulting in “an obstacle course for the young scientists “.

What the Women and Science Unit also highlights is that our country has not implemented specific actions or legislative modifications exclusively aimed at addressing these problems. Therefore, as a recommendation, he proposes some things like attracting girls to science and breaking the male stereotype; support and encourage the unbiased choice of studies; o improve the information and processes related to the development of the scientific career. It also calls for strong responses against gender biases and discrimination that discourage researchers, and especially for claiming a “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment in laboratories.

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