‘Gender bias has no place in science’

antonieta rojas de arias by SCP
Antonieta Rojas de Arias says female scientists need to be involved in decision making. Copyright: Nadia Sosa, Scientific Society of Paraguay.

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  • Rojas de Arias named the first woman to lead the Paraguayan Science Society
  • She is a key Chagas disease and leishmaniasis researcher
  • More women needed in senior positions at science institutions: Rojas de Arias

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After almost a century of history, the Paraguayan Science Society has its first female president. Antonieta Rojas de Arias has dedicated her life to science, registering three international patents on Chagas disease treatments, with two pending, and writing more than 110 peer reviewed papers.
Rojas De Arias has degrees in biological science and educational science from the Universidad Nacional of Asunción, a specialization in public health and entomology, and a PhD in applied zoology from the University of Wales.
Speaking to SciDev.Net, Rojas de Arias says gender bias has no place in knowledge societies, but she admits that in Paraguay, gender inequalities persist at senior levels: “Just a few women have important places in key decision areas.”

What is your research field?

Tropical diseases, especially those that need vectors: Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. I study eco-epidemiology, which treats the factors that influence the onset of a disease, its parasites and vectors.

In my career I was privileged to have the chance to know and work in two worlds: one, the science that answers fundamental questions to help to make programs to control and reduce diseases; and the other world, the hand-to-hand battle against the diseases.

Antonieta Rojas biblioteca
Copyright: Nadia Sosa, Scientific Society of Paraguay.

What obstacles have you experienced in the field?

The tropical disease field has international funding. The worldwide outbreaks as a consequence of climate change, deforestation, and globalisation, pushed the international community to look for solutions.
At the national level, Paraguay’s National Council of Science and Technology finances this kind of research; however, sectoral integration is required to fight locally against these kinds of diseases and their local peculiarities.
There still exists a lot of disconnection between the science community, the private and public sectors. There is little research sharing between sectors. This happens a lot.

Have you found other obstacles?

Making science requires finances, and strong public policies that focus on the weaknesses of the system. In Paraguay, we used to consider scientific research as an expense. But that changed since 2008 and the government started to invest. Now it is up to as, as scientists and decision makers, to achieve things.

Was the field dominated by male researchers when you started?

Like every researcher, I had mentors from whom I learned to ask good questions, which is the key to quality research. My mentors were all male. In that time, only a few women dedicated themselves to research independently, and they were only in technical or supporting roles in research teams.
But, my experience in Paraguay as a professor and researcher since the 1980s was always with many woman researchers. In that decade, the salaries were so low that only women applied for them, so that was not linked to equality policies.

Currently in the National Researcher Incentive Program, for instance, almost 50 per cent of researchers are women. However, inequality is higher as they advance to senior levels.

What does the Paraguayan Scientific Society do under your leadership?

The Society promotes science. Disseminating science is the most important purpose we have as an entity. We discuss and establish our points of view in matters of science, technology and innovation, after a fruitful exchange among our members and the public. We have a full agenda between our own activities and those that support the scientific community.
We have proposed a Science Researcher Law, currently under discussion at the National Parliament, for instance.
Through our official representation at the National Council of Science and Technology we send evaluations on the processes and instruments of the different programs that the Council executes, as well as advice when requested. Recently, the Association of Scientific Researchers of Paraguay was founded, and we play a role in it.

What is your view of science research in Paraguay in the last 10 years? 

Since 2008, after years of very little relevance at the national level due to the low budget, the National Council started an awakening of science in the country. We stopped being islands of knowledge development and we started to institutionalise the processes to create a true national science.
We incubated science and we encouraged new human resources and new research teams, as well as strengthening older ones. We began training people at the postgraduate level inside and outside the country.
The scientific production of Paraguay unquestionably got better in the past 10 years, and especially since 2011 when economic incentives for researchers provided economic stability, and researchers published papers in high impact journals. We are a scientific community laying the foundations for take-off, we must strengthen our engines, not turn them off.

What should be the role of science in Paraguay?

It is necessary to incorporate research into the country’s challenges to get evidence to support the changes we need, respecting the freedom scientists need to ask the best questions.We must focus on the market, learn from the technology and start generating our own technology. Incentives for the development of new areas must be devised and a Strategic Plan must be created as soon as possible in order to achieve the tasks set forth in the National Science and Technology Policy, otherwise it will only be wishful thinking.
Civil society must see that science is in our everyday lives, and what our scientists do must be seen as valuable.

What lessons can you take from your career to give to new generations of woman scientists and researchers?

More than equality, we as woman researchers need more responsibilities in decision making. Gender bias no longer has a place in knowledge societies. The little dedication of girls and women to science is linked to stereotypes that must be overcome. We need everybody’s action to develop our country.
We need facilities, equipment, and human resources to do research. But it is also important to create a nice work environment, with optimistic, patient, and passionate people, who inspire new generations and colleagues.
The best ideas and leaps in knowledge are generated in the heat of discussion around the desk, during lunch or a meeting with interdisciplinary researchers. So, to be in the workplace should be a pleasure and not a daily obligation.