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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Enough with gender stereotypes

Por sumily

In the Balearic Islands, an extensive program of events has been organized, which began with a theatrical performance, followed by a round table in the Assembly Hall of CaixaForum. The performance "Of science, stereotypes and figures", starring research staff of IMEDEA (UIB-CSIC) and SOCIB, staged the invisibility of women, the clichés that feed gender biases, the lack of models and female referents, the glass ceiling that makes it difficult for women to reach positions of responsibility, the imbalance in family conciliation and the distribution of domestic tasks that negatively impact on the scientific career of women, all seasoned with figures and with some phrases, such as of Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize in Medicine, who said "Three things happen when there are women in the laboratory ... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and, when you criticize them, they cry". 

The play was an excellent introduction to the Roundtable: "Research in the Balearic Islands is also a women's thing", moderated by the journalist Patricia Fernández de Lis, director of MATERIA Ciencia, of the newspaper El País, in which the researchers Beatriz participated. Morales (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB), Roberta Zambrini (IFISC, CSIC-UIB), Alicia Sintes (Department of Physics of the UIB), Mar Leza (Department of Zoology of the UIB), Dora Romaguera (IdISBa and CIBER-OBN) and Salud Deudero (Oceanographic Center of the Balearic Islands, COB-IEO).

A study conducted by a multidisciplinary team at Yale University and published in the Proceedings magazine of the National Academy of Science of the United States, in 2012 asked a group of qualified teachers from the science departments of six American research universities to assess the application submitted by a newly licensed person for a job as head of laboratory.

One of the singularities of the experiment was that the documentation they evaluated was exactly the same and only the name and sex of the applicant was differentiated, which in one case was John and in the other Jennifer. Teachers had to assess three features: competence, contractibility and the level of tutoring they would provide to the student. In addition to indicating what remuneration they believed should be assigned to the student according to their merits.

The results were revealing: the participants in the experiment considered that Jennifer was less competent than John, and therefore, they offered him more support, resources and a higher salary, despite having the same capacity and preparation. The survey included academics of both sexes and of different ages and specialties - of the 137, 70% were men and the remaining 30% were women - and the sex of the evaluators did not affect their answers.

Beyond the perception, which can sometimes lead to false conclusions, this type of studies confirm the existence of an anti-feminine bias that affects the whole society, generated by deep-seated cultural stereotypes, and that is responsible for the girls, even if they have the same merits, at the moment of truth, their options to be selected for positions related to scientific research will be reduced.

The number of women, at present, who graduate and complete the doctorate is higher than that of men, however they only occupy 20% of the positions of maximum responsibility. In the great prizes, such as the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, women have an anecdotal presence among the laureates, and the lack of feminine references negatively influences girls when it comes to choosing scientific studies.

Stereotypes are powerful, and mantras such as "women are worse off in science" have penetrated deep into society. 63% of Spaniards think that they are not qualified to be high level scientists. The worrying thing about this is that girls begin to internalize these preconceived ideas from a very early age. At six they are already considered less bright than their peers and they shy away from activities that they think are 'very smart', limiting their expectations from childhood.

Encouraging women from a young age is a way of exterminating prejudices, as well as promoting the work of women scientists. These are some of the purposes that the International Day of Women and Girls in Science seeks to achieve. In Spain, on this day there are numerous activities aimed at all levels, from talks to theatrical performances, through meetings with scientists, technology workshops or visits to schools. More than a thousand events spread throughout the country that can be consulted on the platform that has agglutinated most of its initiatives on its website.

Some 140 people, divided into two shifts, rotated through the different tables spread out in CaixaForum. A bell ring marked the end of an appointment and the beginning of the next, six minutes to deal with the problem of plastics or the disappearance of pollinators, understand how satellites work and other technologies that help in the exploration of the oceans, know the importance of seagrasses or big data, know what nanoscience is, what fauna there was in the Balearic Islands before the arrival of man or the answer to questions, apparently simple, such as why the sea is salty.