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Prejudices and stereotypes impact progression of women in science

by Richard Meckien - published Sep 22, 2016 04:05 PM - - last modified Aug 25, 2023 12:03 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Sylvia Miguel.

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In Brazil, half of the female university students has suffered harassment, and almost 30% of them have experienced sexual violence during the academic life. The alarming figures revealed by the 2015 survey by the Avon Institute / Data Popular show only one side of a cultural model that is reproduced in an environment that should be the place of difference and diversity. Instead of being a plural space, the university also reveals to be the place of the implied prejudice against women with regard to progression in the academic and scientific career, as demonstrated by the debate Women in University and Science: Challenges and Opportunities, held on September 15 at the IEA.

"Much of this discussion is associated with the power of women or with the conflict of power in relation to men and its social, cultural and political implications. In the private and public contexts, women are not willingly admitted in power domains. Even in large democracies of the 21st century, power relates to men," said the lecturer Leila Saadé, president of the RESUFF (Francophone Network of Women Responsible for Higher Education and Research).

The RESUFF's mission is to educate leaders and academics to question male-female inequality at universities, especially in access to positions of responsibility. It has been developing teaching modules on gender that offer training tools for professional and institutional strategies. The agency has also opened a call for proposals for a gender observatory at universities, which will work with a representative of the network in each participating university with the aim of consolidating data and indicators on women's participation in academic life.

As an expert in law and president of the Doctoral School of Law of the Middle East, Saadé addressed experiences in Lebanon and France on the issue of gender in academia and science. She also explored affirmative actions created by the Francophone University Association (AUF), which has been consolidating initiatives to promote women's access to positions of responsibility. The association, founded in Canada, funds university projects of teaching and research, and its headquarters is located in an office of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in São Paulo.

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Vera Soares, from USP Mulheres (USP Women), and conferencist Leila Saadé

"We can not want a better world where half the population is in a hidden corner of the planet. If women are struggling to reach the summit of positions of responsibility we are offering a gift to democracy as we strive for the triumph of a set of values that have founded democracies, ie the principle of equal rights and opportunities," she said.

Physicist Caroline Carvalho dos Santos, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and coordinator of the university extension program Girls in Science, participated as a panelist. Moderation was in charge of Vera Soares, from USP Mulheres (USP Women).

The meeting has been organized by the Consulate General of France in São Paulo, the Institut Français in Brazil, USP Women and the IEA.

Shear effect

According to Saadé, 20% of the presidents in French university positions were women in 2008 and recently this ratio has halved. Eight years ago there were 58% of women enrolled in master's and bachelor courses, as well as 48% in PhD courses. Only 23% reached the position of university professor, showing that the higher the career level, the greater the shear effect. "Unfortunately, academia is deeply discriminatory against women and cultivates women's discrimination," she said.

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The European average is no exception: only 9% of research management positions are occupied by women and only 11% of them are high academic responsibility positions.

In Lebanon, women represent 37% of academic researchers, and 11% of them work in engineering and technology. "We have asked for a national observatory in Lebanon to define gender indicators and structure inclusion strategies," said Saadé.

The shear effect has deep roots in stereotypes in which unfortunately even women themselves believe and reproduce, she said. "The L'Oreal Foundation has conducted a survey on the view that Europeans have of women in science and revealed that 67% believe that women are not qualified to occupy high positions in science. The reasons given for having that thinking are the lack of perseverance, practical spirit, rigor and scientific spirit, as well as rational and analytical mind. Women have the same view, which is the worst part. It is a universal vision. The same survey has been conducted among the Chinese, who reproduced the same responses. We are forced to admit that cultural factors and stereotypes play an important role in this view of women", she showed.

The researcher believes that it is possible to change that, even if a long way to go is necessary. First, one must create a network that encourages and supports female scientists besides consolidating data and indicators. "There is a lack of indicators. The figures are uncertain and often false. We need surveys on the real situation of women in science and academia so we can create action strategies," she said.

Besides consolidating indicators, the network proposed by Saadé will need to act to "break the vicious circle in which research projects are created and evaluated only by men, and in which only men are accepted."

A survey in France has shown that women coursing the last year of graduation in science had better terms than men and this proves that they have scientific spirit, Saadé explained. "So we need to leave solitude and silence by valuing women, their skills and their ego; give them the opportunity to fall in love with the sphere of science," she said.

Segregation by area

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Carolina Brito: "There is a lack of female models in scientific high positions"

Physicist Carolina Brito, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), said that women suffer both vertical and horizontal segregations throughout their academic careers. The first one relates to the shear effect, while the horizontal segregation concerns the areas in which women do often not seek for positions due to pre-existing prejudices in career choices.

Brito showed data of the 2006 School Census, in which women were the majority in high school both in enrollment (54%) and as graduates (58%). Women also represented most of the students in Brazilian universities according to the 2012 data of the Anísio Teixeira National Institute of Educational Studies (INEP). However, for each 100 graduate students, 15 graduated in engineering and mathematics, and only five women headed to the so-called hard sciences.

In the case of physics, segregation is even greater, showed Brito. If something like 30% of scientific initiation scholarships in physics go to women, only 15% of PhD scholarships and only 5% of A-level research scholarships remain with them.

Stereotypes, culture, and family and school influences play an important role so that women do not choose a scientific career, believes Brito, who also points to another important trend. "I insist on the lack of female models in scientific high positions. There are very few giving this example. Therefore, women do not see themselves in careers like that," she said.

Moreover, it is necessary to end scientific committees formed predominantly by men. The scientific committee of physics at the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq), for example, has only 10% of women in its composition. "The pharmacy case is even worse. Although the area has mostly women, the scientific committee at CNPq is 100% composed of men," she said.

The requirements for women are much higher. "In the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the male presence on the chairs is very strong. But if we analyze the profile of the occupants by choosing the criterion members under 35 years studying PhD, for example, we notice that among men 15% do not have a Research Productivity scholarship (PQ), and only 1% of women do not have a PQ. This shows that the criteria are more restrictive for women," said Brito.

Professor Marcos Nogueira Martins, director of USP's Institute of Physics (IF), showed some figures from a foreign institution to confirm that gender segregation occurs worldwide.

"At the University of Chicago, men make up 87% of the academic body. This is a global phenomenon. But in my academic experience, I do not notice any difference in ability between men and women, and I agree that there is a loss of talent by leaving women out. But it is difficult for a person to get interested in what they do not know or do not understand. Unfortunately, you can not make miracles with the education we have in Brazil," said Martins.

Photos: Marcos Santos/Jornal da USP and Leonor Calasans/IEA