Data that shows how underrepresented Colombian women are in science

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Science was not grateful to women. From scientists who claimed that the size of their brains – smaller on average than men's – indicated lower intelligence traits, to the great scientists who were erased by history, the researchers' task was not easy. Although recently, after centuries of struggle, more women have moved away from scientific fields, a worrying trend still exists: although more women are entering the study of these professions, there are still few of those who They can become senior researchers or professors emeritus.

Colombia is no exception, as evidenced by a study conducted by two Colombian women and published in the journal One plus. The country already has data proving that women are underrepresented in natural sciences research and that inequality in this field is becoming more pronounced at the top levels.

After requesting numbers from the Ministry of Science, browsing the databases of the Ministry of Education and receiving responses from only four universities out of ten, they asked them for information on the number of students who were at different academic levels, on the classification of researchers and research groups in the country and on the number of articles, patents and books published by each. World annually, the result was the same: “Women's participation in the advanced stages of professional life is constantly decreasing,” says Carolina Pardo. Diaz, a microbiologist and dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the Universidad del Rosario (Colombia), is one of the authors of the study.

For example, although women represent the majority of students who enroll in an undergraduate degree in natural sciences in Colombia – 59% –, only 36% of the people doing postdoctoral research are women. In addition, on the way up, we see how the numbers gradually decrease: 50% completed a master's degree and 44% obtained a doctorate. As for men, the situation is the opposite: 41% of those who enroll in an undergraduate degree are men, 50% hold a master's degree, 56% reach a doctorate, and 64% continue to do postdoctoral research.

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The same applies to female researchers: the higher the category or hierarchy of the researcher, the lower the representation of women. For 2021 – the last year analyzed by the study – in the junior category (the lowest), 39% of researchers in the natural sciences are women, in the associate research category it drops to 35%, and in the senior category it is barely 26% and drops dramatically to 5 % only for the honorary category, researchers who are at the top academically.

“For me it has been a surprise in the last 10 years [tiempo promedio en el que analizaron los datos para el estudio]“The progress or change has been very small, even zero in some cases,” says Andrea Paz, a biologist and assistant professor at the University of Montreal (Canada), and co-author of the paper. “It is clear from what we saw with our colleagues and in our world that we knew there would be no justice, but in my imagination I thought we were moving in the right direction. But the truth is that over these ten years and in general, the ratios between men and women have not changed much.

Infographic of women's participation in the Colombian scientific ecosystem in the natural sciences.Andrea Paz/Carolina Pardo-Diaz/PLOS ONE

And again the matter is repeated due to other factors. Of the people who lead a natural sciences research group that the Ministry of Science classifies as A1, the highest rank, only 29% are women; About 25% of those who achieve the position of full professor (the highest level) are women and only 28% of authors of scientific articles in the natural sciences in Colombia are women.

The idea to delve into and interpret this data arose from conversations between Paz and Pardo. From discussions between friends and colleagues. From personal experience. “We know this happens in science in general, but it was important to get this information at the local level, because that's where decisions are made,” Paz says.

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But collecting and collating information is clearly a challenge. “We had to look at the history of all the calls made by the Ministry of Science to natural sciences over the past 10 years [incluyendo datos de cuando no era un Ministerio, sino Colciencias, un departamento]“To know exactly what information to ask for,” Pardo adds. But the data they received was not disaggregated by gender, so the work began manually. Fortunately, in 2022, the Ministry of Science threw them something of a lifeline. It published a portal called “Science in Numbers” containing some disaggregated data that was key to the study.

A scientific structure that does not think about women

Paz remembers that when he was studying biology at the Andean University, he did not have any female professor. “At the time, it didn't affect me, and it wasn't until I did my PhD with a female director that I started thinking about the past, and I look back and see that there was something strange there.”

Why do women scientists find their path narrow in their pursuit of professional growth? Pardo comments that what the literature has found is that a large part of the problem comes from the burden of care and having children. “The stage of greatest scientific productivity, when you are academically mature, is usually between the ages of 32 and 38.” The same age at which some women also have the finances and stability to want to have children.

“But we talked to Andrea that this is not the only explanation.” The burden of care extends even to the laboratories in which they work or to academic settings. “Women can be more efficient in administrative matters, or in filling out an Excel file, or in attending meetings, so they end up burdening themselves with these tasks and have less time left to do scientific production, which is what the Ministry of Science measures to classify its researchers,” he explains. In a way, they also end up taking care of colleagues and comrades.

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Scientist Marlene Salazar monitors mosquitoes at the World Mosquito Program plant in Medellin, Colombia, in August 2023. Jaime Saldarriaga (AFP)

For this reason, Paz and Pardo believe there are very few opportunities for change in how science is conducted and evaluated in Colombia. One of them, they say, is extending probation for women with children. The explanation goes. The Ministry of Science usually evaluates researchers over a period of five years. That is, he analyzes the number of articles he published, the number of scholarships he received, the number of conferences he attended, or the number of students he supervised over a five-year period. But women who took one or two maternity leaves had about a year or two during which they couldn't do any of that, so their numbers would be lower. What the researchers suggest then is that for women who have taken maternity leave, the observation window should be the last six or seven years, not the last five.

The second, they comment, is that these administrative tasks – which tend to fall on women – add points to the Ministry of Science's ranking. “Here in Canada – says Paz – these tasks are clearly recognized when scoring for promotion, so not only does it help women not fall behind, but men also have to do these jobs because they love them. They add points.”

Science was not grateful to women. Or rather, the way science is done has not been grateful to women, and even now people are beginning to wonder how the burden of care and motherhood can put women at a disadvantage, as it does in almost all social spheres in the world. But it is important to understand that the diversity of those who research science will help question the world from better and broader perspectives.

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