Women are the majority of scientists in Brazil, but they almost never reach the top


Physicist Márcia Barbosa, professor at the Institute of Physics at UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), was in a heated discussion with a foreign colleague during an immersion of researchers at an event in California, in the United States.

They debated the agglomeration of colloidal suspensions, which contain both large molecules and small particles, and are present in humanity’s daily life – from the production of spray deodorant and diapers to the emulsion process in which mayonnaise or whipped cream are manufactured.

At a certain point, Márcia’s arguments convinced most of the researchers’ audience. The opponent tried to justify the defeat: “I didn’t win the debate because you distracted me with your perfume.”

“It wasn’t a friend, it was an illustrious stranger, who managed to put together in a single sentence an example of moral harassment and sexual harassment”, says she, 62, specialist in statistical mechanics, full member of the ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences), member from the World Academy of Sciences, who in 2020 was elected by Forbes magazine as one of the 20 most influential women in Brazil and mentioned by UN Women (an arm of the United Nations for the promotion of Gender Equality) as one of the seven scientists who shape the world .

“If I were a man, I wouldn’t have heard that comment.”

In Márcia’s opinion, the scientist belittled her knowledge and training for the simple fact that she was a woman, in a clear manifestation of “misogyny”, she says. “For a woman to conquer space in the scientific world, as in any other place, she needs to prove her worth much more than a man.”

Data from Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) prove that there is an invisible barrier to the advancement of female scientists in the labor market. Women are in only 3 out of 10 occupations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Brazil, although they represent 44% of the workforce in the country (according to 2020 data from the Annual Relation of Social Information -Rais).

Today, only 28% of researchers worldwide are women, reports the Unesco report “Cracking the Code: Educating Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. Not by chance, only 17 of them have won the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine since the first laureate, Marie Curie, in 1903. Among men, 572 were awarded the Nobel in these areas, that is, 97% of the total.

Data from a study published this year by the researchers Roberta Silva, Alice Abreu, Carlos Nobre and Ademir Santana, entitled “Androcentrism in the Scientific Field: Brazilian Graduate, Science and Technology Systems as a case study”, which became part of the annals from ABC, show that the advancement of female scientists in the job market is disproportionate to their level of knowledge.

According to the survey, women are the majority (58%) among Capes (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) scholarship holders, a federal agency linked to the MEC that promotes research in the country, as well as among master’s students. (57%) and PhD (54%).

But they are no longer the majority among Capes scholarship holders abroad (they are 48%), as well as members (46%) or coordinators (38%) of research groups, or as research fellows (25%) of CNPq (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico) – body responsible for funding most undergraduate and graduate research projects in the country. On the ABC selection committee, the highest body among academics, they account for only 7%.

“Motherhood accounts for part of this scenario: the scientist stops working to have children, puts aside her production of articles for a while –which is what measures a scientist’s productivity–, loses public notices to get new research grants , and ends up being disconnected from collaboration networks in the scientific community”, says Márcia Barbosa.

“but this [a maternidade] is far from being the main reason why women do not occupy the top of the world of science”, says the head of physics at UFRGS. PCdoB-PE) as holder of the MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations), something unprecedented in the history of the Pasta. “, he states.

This year, Unesco Brazil launched in the country the EducaSTEM 2030 – Global Movement of Girls and Women in Education and Careers in STEM for Inclusive and Sustainable Societies (STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in English).

According to the Unesco report, many girls are prevented from developing in the Stem areas “because of discrimination, the various biases and social norms and expectations that influence the quality of education they receive, as well as the subjects they study “. The initiative intends to contribute to the awareness of schools in their pedagogical approach, in order to encourage children to develop in these areas of knowledge.

“Science needs diversity, different perspectives on an issue, because science is neutral, but scientists are not. They are the ones who choose what and how to study”, says Márcia Barbosa, who cites a study by the McKinsey consultancy, “Diversity Matters: Latin America”. The survey, with 700 publicly traded companies in the region, found that companies that embrace diversity are significantly more likely to achieve superior financial performance than their peers that do not.

“Ask any kid to draw a scientist and they’ll picture an old white man with glasses and a lab coat. It’s like little girls could never get to this place.”

With the aim of valuing the work of women scientists, the French cosmetics multinational L’Oréal promotes the For Women in Science award every year. Held for 25 years on a global level, the program is in its 17th Brazilian edition.

In November, it awarded seven Brazilian women who each received a grant of R$ 50,000 to support the continuity of their research –which addresses various topics, from the effects of climate change in the Amazon to the use of computing to assess infant mortality, through applied physics to neuroscience. To date, L’Oréal Brasil has invested BRL 5.1 million in the award, carried out in partnership with Unesco Brasil and ABC.

“Science is the basis of innovation, it is what feeds the future of companies”, says Cristina Garcia, director of advanced research and scientific communication at L’Oréal Latin America. The company was the first to invest in technology for hair coloring and sunscreen.

Cristina points out, however, that the award is not intended to bring innovation to L’Oréal. For this, the company has other programs such as “Scientists of the Future”, aimed at undergraduate students in areas such as Chemistry, Pharmacy and Biomedicine, which allocates 50% of vacancies to black candidates.

“The award is important to bring visibility and recognition to the researchers, so that they can give continuity to their projects”, says Cristina, 47 years old, a French-Brazilian who had one of the main challenges at L’Oréal to introduce, seven years ago, the reconstructed skin model SkinEthic RHE, produced by the group’s company, Episkin, created to replace animal tests. Until then, L’Oréal Brasil’s tests had to be done abroad.

Today, two-thirds of L’Oréal Brasil’s research and innovation staff are women and leadership in the sector is divided equally between men and women. Quite a difference in relation to the national average, where only 31% of those working with science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Brazil are women. In the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, they account for only 14% and only 7% are on the main committee.

In ABC’s 106 years, it was only in 2022 that a woman, Helena Nader, became president of the institution. “I think this could have happened much earlier, in 1995, when a woman, Johanna Döbereiner, became vice-president of ABC”, says Helena, 75 years old. “But maybe Brazil wasn’t ready for that yet.”

Biomedical and PhD in molecular biology, Helena says she is very proud to be at the head of ABC. “Also because I know that I become a model to be followed by girls and teenagers from all over the country”, she says. “At the same time, I know I don’t have the right to be wrong, because women are much more targeted when they assume positions like this. Nobody looks at a man in the same position with such a magnifying glass.”

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