The proportion of female referents appearing in textbooks used in Spanish secondary education schools (López-Navajas 2015). Women researchers face more obstacles in their scientific careers to reach the highest levels and be recognized as references.

Every February 11 – the Day of Women and Girls in Science – we lack women, as scientific references and as role models that girls can look up to. And it is not because they do not exist, but because they are rarely in the foreground of history’s photograph. Only 7.5% of the references that appear in Spanish secondary school textbooks are women. In “Analysis of the absence of women in Spanish secondary school textbooks. A genealogy of hidden knowledge”, Ana López analyzed 115 books on 19 different subjects -33 of them science- to find a not very encouraging result: in Physics and Chemistry, only 8.5% of the references are women. In Natural Sciences, they hardly reach 10%.

Currently, only one-third of researchers are women, according to United Nations statistics. Spain is above the average (40%) but, since 2018, this figure has practically stagnated. The gender gap in the scientific literature is evident, but the root of the problem lies in something much deeper: women face more obstacles in their scientific careers to reach the upper echelons of research and be recognized as references for their discoveries. Where can we start?

«It is the gender gap in grant funding that causes less favorable evaluations of women as principal investigators and not the quality of their proposed research», argued a group of researchers in a study published a year ago in The Lancet. On the occasion of Women in Science Day, they analyzed a total of 24,000 grant applications from 7,093 principal investigators in all Canadian health research programs to find that women were much less likely to get the lead position in research projects.

«For more than two decades, research has shown that women in academia must exert much greater effort than men to receive the same recognition. It is often assumed that women lack the ability to make discoveries and are rarely seen as capable of leading scientific research.” In addition to being underrepresented in papers ーdespite having published in mainstream mediaー, women are less likely to achieve top positions even if they have the same age, experience, and productivity as men.

This makes even more sense when it is considered that women “tend to be more widely represented in high school and college education positions”. In other words, despite following the same path as their scientific peers, they are more likely to stagnate at the bottom. According to United Nations global figures, 379,920 women compared to 1.2 million men had earned a doctorate in a scientific field, which is equivalent to three women researchers for every ten researchers.

If we look at the percentages, we can see that women reach on average a higher level of qualification than men among all students starting their studies: 14% of people in short studies are women, then 18% in Bachelor’s studies, rising to 26% in Master’s and 24% in PhD. However, when it comes to finding a job with a doctoral degree, women attain research positions in public institutions or universities and men in private companies.

Women with doctoral degrees are more likely to attain positions in public institutions and universities

In Spain, the most recent data from the Ministry of Education show that up to 7 out of 10 students graduating in Health Sciences and Natural Sciences are women. And, although there is an evident male predominance in Engineering and Architecture (70% of students are men), broadly speaking the greatest proportion of students in bachelors, masters, and doctorates in the scientific branches (Health Sciences, Natural Sciences and Engineering and Architecture) is female,  which shows that obstacle start at the beginning of the studies.

Seven out of ten students graduating from medical school are women

The Spanish Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) has provided fairly strong evidence of this disparity. In an internal study carried out in 2019, the institution admits that “the inclusion of gender issues in research projects is a subject that needs to be addressed”. On the one hand, the proportion of female researchers in nationally funded projects is 34.7%, a figure slightly lower than the 35.8% of female researchers at CPISC. On the other hand, data on staff in training indicate a decrease in the proportion of women over the past few years: as training progresses, the proportion of women declines.

Only at the pre-doctoral level do women outnumber men. Once the doctorate degree is obtained, the proportion of men in reserch positions considerably increases compared to women, exceeding the latter by more than 30%. At the end of the PhD, 7 out of 10 men become research professors compared to 3 out of 10 women. In fact,only very few women (20%) are aknowledged as “recognized researchers”.

The more advanced the degree, the lower the proportion of women applicants.

As for Spanish public universities, the landscape of inequality is quite similar: parity is maintained until doctoral theses are approved. From then on, the number of female researchers decreases steadily to such an extent that in “Grade A” research 8 out of 10 members are men.

From the doctoral thesis onwards, the percentage of women in universities declines as the qualification increases

Moreover, only 29% of university deans are women. As shown by the Women Researchers in Figures 2017, the difference is even more visible at the highest level: the rectorate, where only a quarter of the positions are held by women. As for the technical commissions for project evaluation, women researchers are largely under-represented in the two highest level positions (24% female presidents and 22% female vice-presidents), while there is perfect parity in the secretariats.

There are many reasons for these historical differences, ranging from the role of peer review or the academic level to the burden of care and gender roles. As various experts point out in A Historical Comparison of Inequalities in Scientific Studies, studies on the reasons behind these disparities are coducted from a simplistic point of view “that leads to the belief that research programs are different between men and women, neglecting that systemic barriers prevent women researchers from growing up at the academic level”. A fact that inevitably makes it more difficult to implement concrete policies in the scientific community.

The pandemic, another obstacle on the road to gender equality

All these figures allow us to analyze the context in which we live. Inequalities are not restricted to any profession and the health crisis caused by the coronavirus has only increased gender inequalities in all sectors in terms of work and family life conciliation and household chores. The Women and Science Unit carried out a survey last October among 1563 male and female researchers, and their responses showed that the coronavirus has accentuated inequalities in household chores and has hindered women’s scientific production.

Although each gender has faced new challenges at home, it seems that women have experienced a greater increase in the time spent on household chores. For example, half of the female researchers interviewed took care of the household on their own. As for childcare, the researchers saw an 11% increase in the time spent on childcare compared to 18% for women. Differences are also evident in tasks such as washing and hanging clothes.

The amount of time they had to spend in the home during confinement was such that one-third of the researchers did not submit a single publication during confinement. At the same time, more than 40% of the men submitted at least two publications. The pandemic has become another obstacle in the path of women scientists, and the health crisis has shown that inequalities in household chores are one of the factors that have had the greatest impact on scientific production, “an aspect that, in the medium to long term, can have a negative influence on professional careers,” as the Women and Science Unit points out. Getting women into school textbooks means eliminating the flaws in the system that make them invisible.

Photography credit – Cover: Valeria Cafagna via Ethic Magazine