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Women and Science

Modern science and its remarkable advances are closely associated with the ideas and research of men. Although this perception is not entirely accurate, it is also not incorrect. Like all human activity, science is a part of our current social structure, which is undoubtedly based on a male perspective.

Londa Schiebinger, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, USA, identified three phases in the integration of women into science. The first is representation—women occupying scientific roles. The second is a change in the culture to tackle issues such as harassment and motherhood. The third is a methodological change, incorporating gender issues into scientific research, when relevant.

Despite the restrictions and difficulties they face, women have made many important contributions to science. Some of the best-known examples are Polish physicist Marie Curie (1867–1934), British chemist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), and Brazilian psychiatrist Nise da Silveira (1905–1999). An effort has been made to highlight the work of these pioneers, as well as those working today whose research does not always earn the recognition it deserves. One recent example is Donna Strickland, a Canadian who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, but before doing so did not even have her own entry on Wikipedia because in the eyes of the website’s editors, her research lacked coverage from reliable sources. At the time, only 18% of the website’s biographies were about women (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 276).

Today, women represent a large proportion of the scientific community. In Brazil, they outnumber men in PhDs defended per year. The country is also increasingly equal in terms of the gender of authors publishing scientific articles in Scopus-indexed journals: between 2014 and 2018, 195,000 in Brazil were male and 155,000 thousand were female, a ratio of 0.8 women for every man—between 1999 and 2003, the ratio was 0.55. However, as this issue’s cover story on page 26 shows, women scientists remain at a disadvantage when it comes to occupying positions of authority at universities, research institutions, and funding agencies. And despite the positive authorship ratio, there are stark gender inequalities in some fields: while nursing is dominated by women, the female-to-male ratio in computer science is less than 0.25.

Among other challenges, women face a constant need to prove that they are as capable as men or more so, as well as often having to deal with bullying and sexual harassment; evading the professional costs of motherhood; and drawing attention to scientific issues relating to the feminine condition, highlighting issues and perspectives that enrich science as a whole.

There is no shortage of examples. In the health sector, basic research usually uses male animals as its base models, ignoring physiological differences between the sexes, such as the influence of hormones on drug treatments. In demography, the study of female issues such as domestic violence has important implications on public policy in several areas. The first of this issue’s cover stories is dedicated to the impact of women in science and the topic of gender in the results of scientific research; the second highlights the positive numbers in terms of advances in representation, while showing that there is still much to be done.