Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Women in science: a minor majority

We have recently done a 'population survey' here at the Research Park where I work (PRBB), and I have to say that the results are quite striking. As I wrote in my previous entry, there is a surprisingly large percentage of foreign people here, which is not very common in Spanish institutes. We feel specially proud that some of these foreign people (as well as some Spanish people who came from abroad) are coming from renowned places such as the EMBL, the Max Planck Insitute, Harvard Medical School, the IMT in Marburg, the Salk Institute in San Diego or the Albert Einstein University in NY.

But the pride I feel seeing this great mixture of nationalities contrasts with the sadness and frustration that comes with seeing the gender bias that exists in research. This is not at all a problem of the PRBB, but a general one, but let me exemplify it with the data I have from my workplace.

Nearly 60% of the 1,300 residents of the PRBB are women and 63% of residents are less than 35 years old. So, young women, between 25 and 35 years old are the majority of the PRBB residents. PhD students are the largest community (227 people), after the administration and management staff (232). The number of senior researchers is, as expected, quite lower (166). But what is significant is the low representation of the female collective in this community; only 30% of the senior scientists are women.

So, while 60% is the average representation of women at the PRBB, this percentage decreases to 30% when we look only at the top level scientists. Actually, as you can see in the graph above, there is a very marked decrease in the female collective representation (clear green) as one goes up the ladder - starting from a 75% of female undergraduates! And I wonder, how do the 25% of science male students end up occupaying 70% of the senior research posts????

There is clearly something wrong here. Despite the shaking speed at which science advances, it seems that in the subject of gender equality we are going at snail pace. We seem to be in a better position than other sectors of the society (can you imagine that!?), but there really is still much to do.

I invite you to think of some of the reasons why this might be the case and, more importantly, to think of some possible solutions. Please write in this blog any comments or ideas you have...


Anonymous said...

A possible explanation would not necessarily be one of gender bias in selection of senior researchers but a more biological one.

PhD students are often in there late twenties, at the late twenties it can happen that people start thinking about having children, that can be more difficult for women than for men (reasons are obvious, carrying the child for 9 months is only the beginning).

This could -at least in part- explain the differences in gender population.

Maru said...

hi Anonymous, you are definetely right, having a child is something that obviously makes it more difficult for a woman to continue with her career, specially when the career is as competitive as science.

The problem is that it shouldn't be the case that women are penalised because they choose to have children, and therefore generate future scientists, engineers, politicians, doctors, singers, comedians, etc. all of which we need (well, I'm not sure about the politicians...:))

So there should be ways to facilitate that women that have children can still advance in their career path in a competitive way. How? well, that's the issue... Hermann Bujard, the director of EMBO, recently gave me his opinion on the matter - I will soon post it in an interview... keep posted!