Women in science

February 11, 2016

em-thumbby Encarni Montoya

First of all, I would like to clarify that the next post is just my personal opinion, not related to any institution or colleague involved in my research. Spoiler alert: there is nothing written here that I have not commented with any research colleague, don’t expect to find here any revelation. However, it is hard to believe the scarcity of notes published about this topic from the people who suffer it, making more difficult to find comprehension outside the scientific community, and even sometimes from inside.

This morning, a friend that works in the European Commission in Brussels has congratulated me because it seems that today (11th February) is the International Day of Women in Science. Well, it is a completely valid congratulation as I am a woman and I work in science. I am also aware that making an international day of pretty much anything is a very fashionable thing to do nowadays. However, besides honouring past figures, I am not really sure what this celebration is about and I would like to express my personal opinion on the subject. Moreover, this piece has a particular focus on my own experience of science in my country of origin, Spain.

My first thought when I have read the congratulation has been: yes indeed, today it is a day that I could celebrate because I am one of the luckiest people for having a job in what I love to do (research). And then, I have started thinking in my not-as-lucky colleagues as me. Besides the gender, working in research sometimes needs more of believing in faith than in proper science. Especially when more than working, the issue to achieve is to continue being a researcher, or what I call, basic survival. I mean at least in paper, the management and bureaucratic tasks that you have to do in a research contract would give enough material for an entire new post. Needless to say, research (as many other careers) is a very demanding job, without any king of knowledge about the meaning of words such as legal working hours or holidays. Also, it is quite common to move for a long time between temporary contracts. These contracts can go from just a few months till two-three years in the best case scenario (there are few calls of 5-years contract addressed to senior researchers, that is, people with more than 8 years after PhD jumping between shorter temporary contracts). Regardless the duration of the contract, currently there is a huge unbalance between the quality of the contract offered and the quality of the candidates. The economic crisis of the last years (and the advantage that some governments have taken from this as an excuse for budgets’ cuts) has caused the disappearance of many calls, and this has resulted in over-qualified people (that should be already with permanent positions) applying massively to not as qualified jobs. It is not a case of people sponsored by big names in science overtaking better candidates anymore (which has been a common practice and unfortunately is not completely eradicated yet); it is just that there are too many excellent people for too few job opportunities. But as I have said, sadly these two characteristics are not different than other jobs or careers. Research has the additional input of mobility, which can arrive to extreme levels depending on the country. For instance in Spain, mobility between different institutions within Spain (regardless the international quality of the labs or the range of techniques learned) is not considered normally as mobility. As anyone may imagine, the combination of factors (lack of contract stability, extreme moving and demanding work-hours) makes a bit difficult to settle down personally and have a proper private life. There are people completely fine with this life-style, but others don’t and here is when the problems start.

During life in academia, you have the opportunity of meeting many people from different countries and with different cultures, mainly through the attendance to international conferences. It is what we call “networking”. This is especially important for young people, because they have the chance of sharing their research topics and to ask for external opinion, to check the new techniques/developments and directions of the discipline, and to make new contacts to explore further contracts/ collaborations. During the just 10 years that I am working in this, I have attended many conferences and have met plenty of wonderful people. Also during these years, I have met plenty of people that could not attend any conference because they didn’t have any kind of economic support (e.g., PhD studentships) and were working in completely unrelated jobs to have some funding to work in research in their “free-time”. Most of these people are no longer in research because they didn’t have the opportunity of networking. I am 34 years old, and now, during the last years, I am also finding coeval colleagues attending the conferences to say goodbye to everyone because they have decided that they want to have a family. Let me please be clear here: it is not because they are not excited anymore about their research, it is just and only because they can’t reconcile both aspects of the same life. And this, is a serious gender problem because all my personal examples, refer to women. This issue is amusing as my discipline in particular is mostly represented by women during the PhD stage. But surprisingly, as you move forward in academia anyone can easily appreciate that permanent researchers (including university professors) are mostly men (there is plenty of literature and graphs about it).

From my huge job-market ignorance, I can see here at least two problematic issues: First of all, I can’t think about any other job in a developed country where you have to choose that dramatically between being a mom and being a worker (in terms of continuing doing your job with the same quality as you used to do). I am not saying at all that any single woman that works in research has had to give up in her parenting desires; there are females researchers with and without children and females non-researchers with and without children, the problem is when you are not living your life as you would like it because of your work, or vice versa. And secondly, there is a problem of re-location: most of these women are around their mid-thirties, which mean that they have more than 10 years of experience in research if we include the PhD. And research is nowadays, a highly specialised field. On one hand, for an experienced researcher is not easy to find a job not related to research where the skills acquired through time fit. And on the other hand, if found, there is high chance of not getting the job as the as the person who offers the job might be concerned about the possibility of the researcher quitting the job if a potential opportunity in research arises. I am not even going to start with the “tiny issue” that in many jobs’ interviews, people still ask (especially to a woman in her mid-thirties) if she is thinking in having children or has already family responsibilities.

At the end, they are again in a crossroad: if they want to have children they may give up in research, but maybe they are not going to have a job anyway because time ago they started in research. So, what this people should do? Is there any real solution considering the current system? My friend is right, I am the luckiest person today, not because I have a job in a dismantled country for young people, nor because I am a woman in science, but probably just because I have never had to decide between which part of my life do I wanted to live and which do I had to silence, did I? Anyway, my most sincere congratulations to people related to science: women, men, survivors or not. I hope you enjoy today in the life-style you all decided to live.

One Comment

  1. I 100% subscribe what you say. Is it very often seen how very talented women magicaly get diluted in void after their PhDs. As an Spanish male researched Ive had the oportunity to see this in our home country. But even in greener-grass countries like Germany where I carry on my research and supposedly conciliation is pushed and encouraged it is very often the case when women need to choose between academia and family like if the family was a womens bussines. We claim is not, but is it really?

    Good post

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