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The inequality behind the balance

While the number of women scientists has been rising in Brazil, many still face challenging roadblocks

The presence of women in science in Brazil can be analyzed from two different perspectives—both valid, although they may seem divergent. The most favorable view is based on indicators that show rising numbers of women in laboratories and universities. According to the Ministry of Education, women make up 55.2% of students entering higher education, and 61% of those that graduate. Since 2003, most PhD holders have been women—and, in 2017, they made up 54% of all degree holders. They have also taken advantage of academic career opportunities. While the 1990s saw almost twice as many men as women leading research groups in the country, the most recent statistics—released by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in 2016—show that that difference has now dropped to 15%.

However, while these general data may place Brazil at the forefront of gender balance in science, they fail to show another equally important perspective: certain areas, such as mathematics and engineering, are still dominated by men, while fields such as nursing and teaching are considered female territory. In Brazil, this disparity is even more marked than in other countries. “We are far from achieving equality,” claims biologist Jacqueline Leta, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who studies gender issues in science. Leta believes Brazil does have an advantage in relation to other countries: a larger number of women in the highest levels of formal education. However, she says, “the higher numbers of women have not changed the way we do science in Brazil. The top positions in universities and development agencies are still primarily held by men and we still do science as it was formulated by the (generally male) pioneers in each field of knowledge, with the goal to produce and publish results in prestigious journals.”

This inequality is evidenced by the report A jornada do pesquisador pela lente de gênero (The researcher’s journey through the gender lens), published by Elsevier on March 5. The report analyzed the gender of authors from 15 countries who had articles published in journals from the Scopus database between 2014 and 2018. Brazil is among the most equal nations, with a female-to-male ratio of 0.8 (compared to 0.55 from 1999 to 2003). The only countries to surpass it were Portugal (0.9) and Argentina (just over 1), and it placed ahead of the United Kingdom (0.6), the United States (0.5), and Germany (also at 0.5).

But that changes significantly when one analyzes the ratio of authors in specific areas. In computer science and mathematics, for example, the female-to-male ratio is 0.25 in Brazil, much lower than in other countries. On the other hand, in areas such as pharmacology or immunology, the reverse is true, with a 1.36 ratio instead. This is an exclusive situation in Brazil, as in the United States and the United Kingdom male authors are more numerous in such fields. The most female-dominated field in general is nursing, but even there Brazil manages to surpass all other countries, boasting three times more female authors than male. Dante Cid, vice president of academic relations in Latin America at Elsevier, believes the gender proportions in Brazilian scientific data are driven by the high numbers of women in the medical and life sciences, whose communities are large and productive. “To understand what’s going on, perhaps the best question to ask is: why are there so many women in life sciences in Brazil?” he asks.

Part of the answer goes back to the 1970s, when an increased number of opportunities to obtain higher education drew women to professions dominated by men—such as those related to health care, like medicine and dentistry. They were mostly drawn to less competitive specialties, such as pediatrics, gynecology, and dermatology, where they now make up over 60% of professionals. In nursing, they comprise over two-thirds of all professionals. Areas like surgery, orthopedics, and neurology are still dominated by men.

Gender studies usually point out two types of segregation faced by women scientists. One of them is based on, among other factors, a deep-rooted societal perception that women are not capable of working in more experimental or abstract fields. This means many of them never even consider pursuing careers in these areas. The second type determines who occupies powerful positions in each field of knowledge: while men achieve higher paid positions, women remain in less prestigious jobs.

This takes place in unusual contexts. Camila Dias Carneiro Rigolin, a researcher at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), studied gender profiles in Brazilian think tanks—research institutions that are created by specialists in certain subject areas and operate outside of universities. In one such place, the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), she found an interesting tendency: although their researchers—called planning and research technicians—were selected through public competitions, more men were both drawn to the opportunities and successful at obtaining the jobs. In 2017, the staff at IPEA was made up of 154 men and only 34 women. Both the IPEA Directory of Research Technicians and the Lattes Platform were consulted for this information. And, although there was no difference in their training—nearly all technicians have PhDs and most have degrees in economics and sociology—both genders tend to pursue different fields of study. “While men usually focus on public finance and public policy, women researchers prefer topics such as social policy, science, environment, and technology and innovation, which have been included in the institute’s agenda only recently,” explains Rigolin.

Areas such as mathematics and philosophy remain contrary to integrating women, embodying instead a perverse phenomenon called “pipeline leakage”: women are a minority at the beginning of their academic career, and their numbers reduce further with career progression. The “leakage” starts in school. At the 2018 Brazilian Mathematics Olympiad for Public Schools, only 30% of primary school medalists and 20% of secondary school medalists were girls. “There is a social perception that, for some careers, success is not a matter of effort, but of natural talent,” explains Carolina Bhering de Araujo, a researcher at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA). “This prejudice, coupled with the stereotype that men are more intelligent than women, discourages many girls from pursuing mathematics.” Araujo adds that the lack of female representation in mathematics also contributes to girls giving up on it. “I had a strong role model at home—my mother, who is an engineer. But throughout my mathematics training, I had only two female professors,” she shares. Until recently, Araujo was the sole woman among the 50 researchers at IMPA; this year, she was joined by mathematician Luciana Luna Lomonaco.

Carolina Araujo, who has aligned her research with initiatives to attract girls to mathematics, claims that the belief in the stereotype that men are more intelligent than women begins in early childhood. She mentions an experiment done in the United States in which children were shown images of four people, two men and two women, and were asked to point out who was the protagonist of a story they had been told previously—a very intelligent character. “At 5, children tend to pick out a protagonist that shares their own gender. But at 6 and 7 years old, most girls begin pointing out images of men,” she says.

While the field of mathematics remains somewhat inaccessible, there have been advances in other male-dominated spaces. Three researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) and the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) have analyzed the progression of CNPq research productivity grants between 2001 and 2012—considered a symbolic recognition of a researcher’s maturity. The study pointed out interesting developments. In exact and Earth sciences, the number of women increased slightly: from 19.1%, in 2001, to 23.3%, in 2012. For engineering, that number grew from 14% to 18.8% and was especially apparent in some sub-areas, like sanitary engineering, where it grew from 13.9% to 30.9%, and chemical engineering (from 29.8% to 39.7%). Some other areas—such as electrical engineering—saw a reduction in the number of women, from 4.9% to 3.3%.

For human sciences, their numbers were reduced from 52.5%, in 2001, to 50.6% in 2012—this was due to an increase in younger male researchers. Political science saw the number of female grant beneficiaries decrease from 46.5% to 33.7%. The authors of the study criticized the concentration of grants in male-dominated exact and Earth sciences and engineering, as it adds to the challenges women face in the academic environment.

Higher positions continue to be occupied mostly by men. The gender ratio of members of the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC) was examined in a 2018 article published by seven women researchers in the journal Anais da ABC (Annals of ABC). Of the 518 members, only 69 were women. Engineering was represented by one woman and 39 men. The study shows that scientific productivity is similar for both genders, but female researchers tend to become more involved with student advising.

For many years, the debate about gender inequality in science has focused on defending civil rights, but it has recently developed more arguments. “The greater the diversity in the academic environment, the greater its ability to understand and solve a problem,” declared anthropologist Alice Rangel de Paiva Abreu, from UFRJ, upon receiving the honorable mention of the Carolina Bori, Ciência & Mulher (Science & Women) Award, granted by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) on February 11. The logic is as follows: the segregation of women, racial minorities, or other groups restricts the human capital available to advance knowledge, and it is harmful to science (see article).

One negative consequence of this segregation can be seen in the field of innovation. Camila Rigolin, from UFSCar, is studying the gender ratio of project proponents for the FAPESP Research for Innovation in Small Businesses program (RISB, or PIPE in the Portuguese acronym). On the one hand, she found that the percentage of women responsible for projects is significant: of the 1,788 projects contracted before 2017, 388 were coordinated by women. “This is equivalent to the approximate ratio of 20% found in new technology-based businesses in European Union countries, such as Germany and Ireland,” she states. The entrepreneurial researchers at RISB, according to the study in progress, have PhDs and a robust scientific bibliography, but their careers are marked by the sexism seen in the academic field: according to Rigolin, few engineers or computer scientists are women, as is commonly seen among male-founded startups. “The contribution of women to technology-based businesses could be higher. Most female entrepreneurs in RISB are trained in female-dominated areas, such as biological sciences. Chemistry and pharmacy are seen almost as often,” she explains. “Not coincidentally, the majority of women-led companies that benefit from RISB projects are in the health sciences sector.”

Scopus data on global scientific production between 2011 and 2015 show that female Brazilian researchers get fewer articles published than their male colleagues, although there is no evidence that this affects how often their articles are cited. The average for women was 1.2 articles per year, compared to 1.5 articles for men. In the United States, female authors published 1.8 articles per year; in the United Kingdom, 1.9. Brazilian female researchers are also less often part of international collaborations. About 20% of their articles feature foreign coauthors. For men, that number is 25%. The case of Brazil warrants a more detailed study, but there are complaints about the lack of women among reviewers of scientific articles and on editorial boards of journals, which could be a source of bias in the screening of articles.

In an article published in Digital Journal of Library and Information Science, sociologist Maria Cristina Hayashi, from UFSCar, and her PhD student Juliana Franco de Camargo analyzed the percentage of women in four scientific journals in the field of surgery: Acta Cirúrgica Brasileira (Minutes of Brazilian surgery), Brazilian Archives of Digestive Surgery, Brazilian Journal of Cardiovascular Surgery and Journal of the Brazilian College of Surgeons. From the 920 articles published between 2010 and 2014, 585 were written exclusively by male authors, 219 written exclusively by female authors, and 116 were authored by both genders. The result was consistent with what is known about surgery, a male-dominated medical field. “There is an ingrained idea among the lay public that a man’s strength is necessary to crack open a patient’s chest in cardiac surgery,” says Hayashi, who heard this during classroom discussions about gender in science.

Even more surprising was how much influence men exert on the editorial boards of the four publications, which had only four women out of 28 total editors. There was also a kind of distribution of tasks. On the scientific committees of the journals, there were 155 men and 3 women, while the review boards had 67 women and 5 men. “Several of the women were linked to functions seen as less prestigious, such as proofreading and editing,” shares Hayashi, who is a researcher for the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at UFSCar. “It is necessary to investigate whether this male predominance creates a gender bias when selecting the articles—something that has already been observed in studies abroad. The reviewers do not know the gender of the author of the article they are examining, but the editor does.”

In a 2018 article published in Revista ABC, by the Santa Catarina Association of Librarians, Hayashi analyzed the authors of 333 papers presented at the National Information Science Research Meetings (ENANCIB) between 1994 and 2016. Among the authors, there were 519 women and 230 men. The numbers confirm the female-dominated nature of the field. But perhaps the main finding of the article relates to the number of papers on gender issues presented at the meetings: only 13, or less than 4%. “There is a significant number of indicators for gender in science, but there are few bibliometric studies in the field of information science in Brazil,” claims Hayashi, who is currently performing a gender analysis of scientist obituaries published in academic journals. “I’ve been able to observe that women are underrepresented and that the obituaries of men are more often accompanied by photographs, thus contributing to the lack of female faces in science being known or immortalized for future generations.”

Gender and innovation: A study of female technological entrepreneurs funded by RISB/FAPESP (nº 17/26120-3); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Camila Carneiro Dias Rigolin (UFSCar); Investment R$25,011.40.