The Role of Women in Science: An Unsolved Conundrum

The Role of Women in Science: An Unsolved Conundrum

08.2.2017

Why, when women represent a majority in universities, are they in the minority in the workplace, particularly in the upper echelons?

When people ask me why I became a scientist—and they often do—I have to hark back to my schooldays when I was in EGB (yes, I did EGB too).

The teachers who pass through your life when you are a child have a big influence on you, for better or for worse. Almost without you realising it, they are the reason why you choose certain subjects or branches of study. I came to love science—particularly biology—thanks to the magnificent women who taught me the subject in primary and secondary school.

Sara Soto and Yuli López, ISGlobal researchers, working in the laboratory.

When I got to university, I met the person who later became my doctoral advisor.  She is a great example of a woman scientist who has battled against prevailing trends through thick and thin. Her courage enabled her not to be intimidated by male colleagues who, in the nineteen seventies, accused her of abandoning her children and her duties as a home maker by choosing to work at the university, where she eventually became a professor.

When I studied for my biology degree, 70 out of the 100 students in my year were women, but very few of us went on to pursue careers in science. This inconsistency reflects a worldwide trend: women are still underrepresented in research and development in all parts of the world, accounting for only 28% of researchers overall. According to data collected by the Unesco Institute of Statistics, 54% of students who get a Bachelor's degree in science are female, but women account for only 49% of doctoral students and 39% of researchers.

Motherhood should not be an obstacle to a woman’s career development

Women researchers typically work in either academia or the public sector while men tend to predominate in the private sector, where the opportunities for advancement and the salaries tend to be better.  In most countries, women scientists tend to be concentrated in the social sciences and they are underrepresented in engineering and technology.

We must encourage girls to study science and to become scientists. We have to bring science into primary and secondary classrooms and explain to the students what happens in a laboratory.

But why, when women represent a majority in universities, are they in the minority in the workplace, particularly in the upper echelons?

Women choosing these educational paths and careers face many obstacles, starting with the stereotypes affecting girls and including the prejudice women face when they choose a field of study and the difficulty of combining their career with family responsibilities.

Motherhood is one of main obstacles that holds women back in science, and it is hard to admit that. Most of us, especially if we have no family living nearby who can lend a hand, are on the go morning to night trying to balance the demands of our work and our home life. The problem—and here I am of course talking in general about the majority of cases—is that you no longer have the same availability to travel, to stay late at work, and to work weekends. If you choose to take a few years off to care for your children, it is extremely difficult to resume your career, get funding, and so on. However, none of this is taken into account by employers and you are treated just the same as a single person without children, who has much greater availability and flexibility.

 The International Society of Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) has elected two ISGlobal researchers, Bénédicte Jacquemin and Martine Vrijheid, to serve on the executive council of the ISEE Europe Chapter. 

But motherhood should not be an obstacle to a woman’s career development. We still lack policies that would help ensure gender parity and life-work balance, not just for women pursuing careers in science but for women in all areas of work in both the public and the private sector.

And we persevere, in spite of all the obstacles and thanks to our passion for what we do and the pleasure we derive from knowing that our work could help many people and even save many lives in the future. In our research institute, there are wonderful women scientists—some of them mothers—who have reached the position of group leader through tenacity and hard work, and they are splendid role models.

We have to change the statistics, to increase the percentage of women scientists at higher levels, and make sure that women can advance without sacrificing motherhood, because

We must encourage girls to study science and to become scientists. We have to bring science into primary and secondary classrooms and explain to the students what happens in a laboratory. We need to explain that science is not just about bugs and plants, or about mixing chemicals; we have to show them that science drives progress and can be used to improve our lives.

We have to change the statistics, to increase the percentage of women scientists at higher levels, and make sure that women can advance without sacrificing motherhood, because