Q&A: Female scientists face same obstacles everywhere

Women working gender Q&A
Copyright: Andrew McConnell / Panos

Speed read

  • Excluding women from science halves a nation’s intellectual capacity
  • One key hurdle is how becoming a mother affects careers
  • Public schooling and pre-school care helps women to pursue careers

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Curt Rice is head of  Norway’s governmental committee on gender balance in research, and has advised the European Science Foundation on encouraging more women to take up science careers. He has also written extensively about the barriers that women face in science, and ways to overcome them. Rice disagrees with commonly held views that these barriers are much more profound and complicated for women in developing countries. Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, he argues that the challenges for rich and poor countries wanting to address gender balance in research are not so different after all.

International Women’s Day portrays achieving a gender balance in research as a global challenge. What can be done around the world to help women establish careers?

It is important to remind people that it is sound economic and social policy to make use of both men and women in the workplace. It has a positive impact on so many other factors in society, for example the economic wellbeing of children. One thing to bear in mind in any country is that there is a close relationship between gender balance at home and equality at work. If you change attitudes about the division of labour in domestic life, you will also create change in professional and academic settings. So, when men allow themselves to be more engaged in the lives of their children, that creates a situation where women can pursue career opportunities more easily.

What specific challenges do you see for developing countries?

A lack of infrastructure, especially when it comes to caring for children. Having a high rate of participation in public schooling and preschool care directly contributes to making it possible for women to pursue careers. And that is one thing that many of these countries do not have. Of course social stability in general is very important. Think about psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which specifies that people need safety and fulfilment of their basic needs before they can work on their ‘self-actualisation’ and reach their full potential.

People in developed countries spend less of their energy on meeting fundamental needs, so they are freer to pursue more intellectual work, like science. But in many developing countries, people are still focused on survival.

What kind of message needs to be sent to women in developing countries to encourage them to enter science careers?

The most important message is that science is interesting and rewarding work. Your country and science need you. If we exclude half of the population from the most intellectually challenging work there is, we’re essentially be losing half of the intellectual capacity of society, which stifles economic development. But there are more down-to-earth things to say.

“it is in the interests of men to promote gender equality and to promote opportunities for women.”

Curt Rice

The presence of women in scientific research contributes to exploring questions that have an impact on women — for example in medicine. The traditional assumption is that medicines designed for men will work equally well on women, but now we know that that’s not always the case. Having more women working in science creates a heightened awareness among researchers that they have to design their projects to benefit both men and women.

Some research policies focus on empowering women to enter science careers, while others are more focused on changing women’s environments. Which do you think is more important?

Both are extremely important things. When you think about women’s environments, this covers basic things like having an infrastructure in place that allows you to be a mother and have a career. But empowerment is important to allow women to see themselves in these kinds of jobs and to believe that they can contribute to traditionally male areas like research. So, in the context of the developing world, where perhaps some gender stereotypes are stronger, we need strong engagement on both of these issues.

Europe is often held up as a beacon for gender equality. But how successful has it been at getting more women into science?

If we look at the percentage of men and women who are studying at university level in science, there is a significant increase in the proportion of women, especially in medicine, psychology and veterinary science. But when they get out into careers and start to move towards senior positions, leadership posts and professorships, we see that men eventually overtake women in terms of numbers. One of the key issues seems to be how becoming a mother affects your career, so it’s a complicated picture.

Motherhood is important to women’s identity around the world, but maybe more so in developing countries. So how does that come into the debate?

All over the world parenthood seems to be something that affects women much more negatively than men in terms of career progression. In Western Europe, it’s a fact that women scientists are much more likely to remain childless than women in other kinds of careers. More than men, even. And you don’t have to go to the developing world to encounter men who do not see mothers as belonging in professional fields. So, when we encourage women to study science, we are expecting to see some more women in senior science positions in time. But just sitting and waiting will not solve this if the environment is discouraging. I think we need a more deliberate approach to enable women to stick with science throughout their careers while also having the family life they want.

If you could send a message to your fellow men around the globe, what would it be?

What I would like to say to them is that it is in the interests of men to promote gender equality and to promote opportunities for women. That is because the presence of women in the workplace improves the quality of performance and makes life better — and not just for women but for all of us.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.