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Women in Research: Progress Has Been Made but We Still Have a Long Way to Go to Fill the Gender Gap

Written by Elisabetta Baldi  |  Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine, University of Florence, Florence, Italy

 

Until the 1970s, science was a male-dominated field and the opportunities for women to conduct biomedical research were limited. Marie Skłodowska Curie and Rita Levi-Montalcini are two exceptional examples of successful women in research from the last century. Although the number of opportunities in biomedical research for women has increased in recent decades, particularly from 1990 onwards, a recent statistical report in the USA showed that women represent a maximum of 40% of research personnel in Western countries.1 However, the story becomes much worse when we consider relevant positions in academic settings.  Considering all academic disciplines, women hold only 20% of professorships in UK universities,2 and in Italy it is very rare to find a woman in the role of Rector of a university. Similar situations can be found in other European countries. If we consider that in the academic disciplines of humanities, the percentage of male and female professors is almost equal, it appears quite clear that the gender gap is mostly restricted to scientific disciplines, including biomedical research. The reason for this difference in gender representation between scientific and humanities disciplines can be at least partially ascribed to the fact that, until 30–40 years ago, the majority of women (about 80%) chose to study humanities degree courses, but the question remains: if women are so prominent in humanities, why do they not occupy the vast majority of relevant positions in such disciplines?

Whether the gender gap in academic disciplines is solely attributed to gender prejudices or stereotypes is questionable. For instance, in the field of biomedical research, it does not appear that gender influences the chances of publication in top-quality journals or the chance to be interviewed for faculty positions, at least in the USA. Despite this, globally, women remain in Assistant or Associate Professor positions longer than men and too often women abandon academic science careers.3 Children are certainly one important factor for this but not the only one. According to a recent survey performed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women are less confident than men in their abilities to obtain a top-level position and even to be successful in a grant competition.4 Such a low level of self-confidence is something that women should work on, not only to increase their chances in scientific careers.

I am a scientist working in the field of andrology, which is considered the epitome of a male-dominated research field in biomedicine. I started working in andrology in Italy in 1990 when I returned from a 2-year sabbatical in the USA. During this time, going to an andrology meeting (in Italy but also other countries) was somewhat frustrating; most, if not all, of the relevant positions and presidencies of andrology societies were held by men. During my first andrology meeting in Italy, I felt like a white fly while presenting my first results in the field of sperm biology, since I was surrounded by males. My first paper published in an international journal was in 1991 and is still to this day among the most cited papers of the Andrology Unit of the University of Florence, Florence, Italy. This relative success helped increase my self-confidence in my work and has highly stimulated my career progression; however, this success was not simple to achieve. Andrology in Italy continues to be male-dominated, despite the fact that a vast proportion of published papers in this field from Italian groups have a woman as the first or corresponding author.  The same can be said for other European countries, where andrology continues to be a male-dominated field. An important recognition for women in Europe was achieved when, in 2014, the first woman became President of the European Academy of Andrology (EAA). However, there is still a long way to go to fill the gender gap. What should women do? In principle, they should do nothing, because their scientific merits should be naturally recognised irrespective of their gender. In reality, women should work together and fight against male dominance in science. Self-confidence is, in my opinion, an important factor to surmount the gender gap.

An example of what women can do comes in the form of the Women in Andrology (WIA) of the American Society of Andrology (ASA). At the beginning of the 1990s, women working in andrology in the USA and participating in ASA annual meetings felt tired of the predominance of men among candidates for dominant positions in the society and raised concerns during the annual council meeting of 1991. This was the start of a new era for women in andrology. The ASA council recognised the women’s rights and agreed to reserve one position for women in the ballot for President. Later, women of the WIA shared similar concerns in other societies in the field of reproduction, obtaining similar recognition. At present, WIA organise lectures and symposia at the annual ASA meeting, and, most importantly, from 1995–present, nine women have been elected as ASA presidents. This has happened in the USA thanks to the dedicated efforts of the WIA group.

I am sure that there will be a time when a female President of a scientific society or Rector of a university will no longer be cause for a news story in the media and only at this point will the gender gap be truly filled.

 

References
  1. European Commission. She Figures 2012: Gender in research and innovation: Statistics and indicators. http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/document_library/pdf_06/she-figures-2012_en.pdf. Last accessed: 06 March 2018.
  2. Black C, Islam A. Women in academia: what does it take to reach the top? (2014). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/feb/24/women-academia-promotion-cambridge. Last accessed: 06 March 2018.
  3. Flaherty C. More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track. (2016). Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/22/study-finds-gains-faculty-diversity-not-tenure-track. Last accessed: 06 March 2018.
  4. Johns ML. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Structural, Cultural, and Organizational Barriers Preventing Women from Achieving Senior and Executive Positions. Perspect Health Inf Manag. 2013;10(Winter):1e.