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Opinion

Women in science

The difficult pathways confronted by female researchers throughout the world

When it was announced that I had won the Unesco/L’Oréal Award for Women in Sciences, the questions from the national and international journalists were: What is it like to be a woman in science? What are the difficulties which a woman in science comes up against in Brazil? What advice would you give to the young who want to begin a scientific career?

To the surprise of all, I replied that the difficulties confronted in my scientific career were the same as those that a man would come up against, since I had never felt myself to be discriminated against for being a woman in Brazil. However, could this be the truth for all researchers? Data from Unesco shows that only between 5% and 10% of the women in the world climb up to positions of responsibility in the field of science.

As yet of today, even in Europe and the United States, women are the minority in science. In France, there are 32% in the National Research Council (CNRS) while in the United States the participation of women is on average 30%, varying in accordance with the discipline (from 10% in mathematics to 48% in psychology). According to a recent survey, (Nature, December 2000), in Italy, men have three times more chance of reaching positions of responsibility, and within those who are the research leaders, close to 40% do not have any children.

In Brazil, according to CNPq, women constitute 43.7% of the researchers, although this ratio decreases when you go up the age groups: 45.9% to 41.5% in the group from 35 to 54 years of age and around 30% between 55 and 64 years of age. According to this projection, the number of women will overtake that of men by the end of the decade. The question is: will this also occur in the positions of leadership? When one analyses the percentage of women who lead research, the sexual disproportion screams out. Only 21% of women are coordinators of thematic projects of FAPESP and less than 10% of the resident professors of the University of São Paulo or members of the Brazilian Academy of Science are women.

Could it be that this occurs because there is discrimination against those who attempt to climb to higher positions or is it an option of women themselves who want to work less after a certain age? Female participation diminishes after 34 years of age, which coincides with the period in which today many decide to have children. To confront a double shift of motherhood and professional career is certainly not easy and many don’t manage to dedicate themselves as much to research as they would like or as they would need.

To me, the young women who begin a scientific career should not abdicate from the fantastic experience of having children, in spite of the difficulties of reconciling a career with maternity. To believe that we can contribute and can have the courage, without fear of being turned down when submitting a research project or a paper for publication.

If we opt for a scientific career because we have a true internal sense of questioning, if we feel thrilled with each new discovery at the same time that we open a mountain of new questions, if we work untiringly on a problem simply because we wish to understand, certainly we shall have our work recognized sooner or later. The sentiment of trying to contribute to a greater understanding of a scientific problem, for a better and more just world, will be, independent from our hierarchical position, the greatest reward.

Professor at the Biosciences Institute of USP and the coordinator of the Center of Studies of the Human Genome Project (Cepid-FAPESP)

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