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The limits of difference

Women expand their territory in science and face the challenge of matching men at the top of their careers

Veridiana ScarpelliTwo recent studies carried out in Europe suggest that the differences in the performance of men and women in scientific careers has declined to the point of being imperceptible in some disciplines and strata, and that this tendency is pointing to equilibrium, even at the top of the profession, where the gap is still significant. One of the studies, led by researcher Hildrun Kretschmer, from Humboldt University in Berlin, analyzed the impact and scientific productivity of men and women who do research in medical institutions in Germany. The main conclusion is that in the most productive group of researchers, there is still an advantage in being part of the male group. However, at the level below, balance has been established, with even a slight advantage for women. “In previous studies we’d already observed that the quality of scientific articles is not substantially different when the sexes are compared,” the authors wrote.

The second study analyzed the performance of 852 researchers from the fields of psychology and economics in the Netherlands. In the younger generation, there is a balance between the genders in the publication media (1.7 for men and 1.5 for women) and in impact, measured in terms of article citations – in the segment of the 10% of the group with the biggest number of citations there are a few more women than men. In the group of consolidated career researchers, on the other hand, men publish almost three times more than women, even though the difference in the number of citations is very small. The general performance of women exceeds that of men among researchers in the psychology area, but falls below in economics. “The differences tend to disappear over time. There are even women exceeding the performance of men,” says Pleun van Arensbergen, a researcher from the Hathenau Institute, in the Hague (Netherlands), the main author of the study.

There is no doubt that women are rapidly expanding their territory in scientific careers and also that their advance is more notable in some countries – Brazil is one example of this – than in others, even in those where science is more consolidated, such as Japan. Data taken from the Directory of Research Groups of Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) show that in 2010 women were already the majority among PhD students in Brazil, representing 55.7% of the total (in 2000 they were 49.1%). In numbers of researchers, they correspond to precisely half of the Brazilian contingent. However, they are still in a minority on the list of research group leaders. They represent 45% of the total number of leaders, vs. 39% in 2000. A study carried out by FAPESP last year is also evidence of this advance in the São Paulo State. In 2010, the Foundation received 19,678 requests for support from researchers, 42% of which came from women. In 1990, this figure stood at 30%. The quality of the proposals is not indicative of gender. The success rate, which is the ratio between the number of proposals approved and the number of proposals presented, was 61% for women and 60% for men.

Still, conquering their space does not mean that it will be easy for women to reach the top in their career. Jacqueline Leta, a professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, sees the outlook  for female researchers as difficult. “I’d not risk saying that this scenario is going to change quickly. Women’s performance and presence vary a lot according to the areas of knowledge. Studies carried out in the so-called hard sciences perhaps show a different panorama from the one presented in these snippets from Germany and the Netherlands,” she says. The study undertaken by FAPESP shows that women submitted more requests for support than men in areas such as health sciences (54% of the total) and human sciences (52%), but they are in a minority in engineering (22%), the exact and earth sciences (26%) and in the applied social sciences (39%).

VERIDIANA SCARPELLIAffirmative policies
According to Jacqueline, the academic structure is still thought about and formulated following a consolidated masculine pattern. “It’s natural that young researchers of both sexes, when submitted to the same pressure to publish, perform equally. But this doesn’t guarantee that women are going to move up in their careers. Countries like Germany and France have affirmative policies for promoting women in scientific careers, but women do not progress. I think it’ll need more time so that science can incorporate new, more democratic practices and behaviors,” she says.

In 2010, Jacqueline and Pablo Diniz Batista, researchers from the Brazilian Center for Physics Research, published a paper comparing the performance by gender of Brazilian researchers. The research compared data about scientific publications contained on two databases: the Lattes Platform, which contains the CVs and production of Brazilian researchers and the Web of Science, which indexes more than 12,000 scientific publications from 45 countries. They were able to crosscheck information from these databases against a group of some 19,000 Brazilian researchers. The main conclusion is that the chances of appearing on the list of most productive researchers is much greater for men than for women – in a group of 100 researchers of both sexes with the biggest production, there are 86 men and 14 women. While the 100 most productive men published 15,900 articles, the 100 most productive women published only slightly more than 8,000. However, for 90% of the sample, comprised of those researchers who had 50 publications or fewer, there are no differences between the groups.

For Maria Conceição da Costa, a professor at Unicamp and director of the Gender Studies Center (Pagu), the current competitive model in scientific careers continues to be an obstacle for women. “Young professionals today postpone the decision to marry and to have children; they put it off until a later date, which facilitates progress at the start of their careers. But later, when submitted to the same rules as the men, they are at a disadvantage,” she says. “Some are unable to compete while others are not interested in working in a highly competitive setup. They’re able to stand out in less competitive disciplines, but don’t  perform the same as men in other areas,” she says.