Brazilian women climb in science, but few reach the top

Brazilian researcher studying a parasitic disease Copyright: WHO/TDR/Crump

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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Gender equality in Brazilian science is increasing up to doctorate level but few women hold senior scientific posts, according to figures released by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP).

According to an INEP report released in March, women took 51 per cent of the scientific postgraduate degrees awarded in 2003 and held 56 per cent of the places on undergraduate science courses.

While the number of doctorates awarded to Brazilian men increased by 69.2 per cent between 1996 and 2003, for women the increase was 80.9 per cent. In the same period, the increase in master’s degrees awarded was also greater for women (119 per cent) than for men (106 per cent).

The report shows that women tend to study human and health sciences while men tend to study applied social sciences and engineering.

The INEP report includes recent data from the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), one of Brazil’s national agencies that funds postgraduate education,. In 2005, women received 55 per cent of the agency’s 16,264 fellowships for master’s degrees and 54 per cent of the 9,858 granted for doctorates.

According to figures seen by SciDev.Net, the proportion of fellowships for master’s degrees in science subjects awarded to women by CNPq, another major Brazilian funding agency, rose from 45 to 51 per cent between 1990 and 2005.

Neither agency has a policy of positive discrimination towards women, and the figures for undergraduate and postgraduate scientists appear to reflect a wider improvement in gender equality in Brazil in recent years.

But higher up the career ladder, the proportion of posts occupied by women falls in all areas of science, even those that tend to attract large numbers of women, such as human and social sciences.

The CNPq figures show that, in 2005, women hold just one-third of the 8,500 fellowships awarded to researchers who already have their doctorates or equivalent experience.

The greatest contrast is at the top of the academic ladder, among senior post-doctoral researchers, group leaders or professors, where less than one-quarter of the fellowship recipients are women.

In some disciplines the contrast is even greater. In physics, for instance, only one per cent of senior researchers are female.

José Roberto Drugowich de Felício, one of CNPq’s directors, believes there is no prejudice against women in the allocation of these fellowships. He says the unequal gender balance among senior scientists reflects men’s traditional dominance of high-level research.

De Felício believes the increase in numbers of women at more junior levels shows that redressing the imbalance in advanced positions is inevitable, and that the time it will take will depend on the total number of new fellowships offered.

Jacqueline Leta, a biochemist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, disagrees. Leta believes that some prejudice arises from a lack of female representation in several of CNPq’s scientific committees, which means there are few women making decisions about who is to receive senior career posts.

She adds, however, that the reason women do not pursue scientific careers in the long term is down to the absence of role models, and the persistence of stereotyped roles for women in Brazilian society.

CAPES and INEP are both institutions of the Ministry of Education.