Brazil: a world champion for gender equality in labs?

As the football World Cup reaches its final hours in Brazil, other competitions - such as the match played out by women Brazilian scientists - are drawn out. And if victory seems perpetually distant, these women are gaining terrain, step by step, in an environment that is traditionally made up of men and still little inclined towards placing women in command.

On the Latin American scale, scientific research in Brazil is colossal. Close to 60% of the region's investment the sector is allocated to Brazil. This volume is explained by the efforts made by public authorities in recent years on a number of levels.

A report published by Elsevier, in 2013, notes that Brazil is a model for public investment in the domain of scientific research compared to its Latin American neighbours. Each year, the country allocates 1.4% of its GDP to science, and it has initiated a number of support programmes to widen the spectrum of potential candidates in research professions.

The document illustrates that student scholarships and prizes, paralleled with finance, have allowed a number of women to integrate the research sector.

Women more frequently lean towards science...

Brazil boasts a number of figure heads in scientific research that reflect the increasingly significant place women are holding in the sector. One example is Mayana Zatz, Director of the Human Genome and Stem-cell Center at the University of Sao Paulo and L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate for Latin America in 2001.

"I've often had the opportunity to say that that I had never, as a woman, felt slowed down in the scientific career I've followed in Brazil. But unfortunately, that is not the rule. About 45 years later, women of science are still the object of discrimination in most countries," said the scientist this year in an editorial published by DiscovHER.

Over recent years in Brazil, mentalities have evolved considerably, even if gender equality is not yet absolute. A study released in 2012 by UNESCO, Women and Science, reveals that in Brazil 52% of doctoral students are women.

This proportion should nonetheless be put in perspective with other statistics released in March 2014 by the Boston Consulting Group for the L'Oréal Foundation. Between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Brazilian women who have opted for a university degree in science has risen from 29 to 33%. A majority (67%) of these students, however, turn towards life sciences and remain a minority in sectors related to engineering, despite a significant increase in figures since 2000.

"Even if the situation as evolved considerably over the last ten years, it is still more complicated for a woman to chose science for a number of reasons. First, traditional culture invites Brazilian women to focus on children, seniors and their home. But mostly, the scientist, particularly physicians, is generally stereotyped as a 'nerd', which contributes towards keeping young women away," explains the physician Marcia Barbosa, L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science prize-winner for Latin America in 2013.

... despite persistent stereotypes that distance women from leadership roles

It's a fact, there are more and more women researchers in Brazil. Their proportion rose from 39 to 47% between 1995 and 2004. Within this positive trend, however, the functions they hold are generally lower in the hierarchy than their male counterparts: 40% of women researchers in science are assistants to professors, and only 26% are professors themselves.

"The percentage of women in leadership positions in science is low, and diminishes higher up the ranks," explains Marcia Barbosa. In a 2013 publication, she points out that scientific research in physics is particularly affected by this phenomenon. According to her statistics, women only represent 13% of active physicists in Brazil, and their proportion lowers to 5% when focused on leadership roles. These figures, adds Marcia Barbosa, "have not shifted in ten years and are barely higher in other sectors."

Jacqueline Leta, a doctor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has also studied Brazil's gender repartition in the sciences in depth. In an interview with Inter Press Service, in March 2011, she regretted that merely 25% of post-university scholarships were attributed to women despite the greater number of female than male doctorates.

This disparity in treatment is also noted in career advancement, as the result of a meritocratic system that is advantageous towards men. Doctor Leta explains:

"There are huge differences. Leadership positions and power are almost systematically in the hands of male researchers. […] And men tend to chose other men in turn."

A sector that is leaning towards parity

Doctoral students, in Brazil, that opt for research generally practice within universities where gender equality in salaries is regulated by law. But for Marcia Barbosa, "women face far greater challenges than men to reach these levels […] even if the lines are moving in response to the studies that we produce and the facts we publish."

Mayana Zatz does not entirely agree with this statement: "There is no doubt that there are many more men than women in leadership positions. I think, however, that beyond certain exceptions, it is most often a conscious decision made by these women more than a real discrimination issue. Often, women prefer to share their time between family life and work rather than devote themselves exclusively to their professional advancement. […] I think that, altogether, men and women have access to the same opportunities."

Despite some divergences, both women agree on one point: women scientists in Brazil, despite the battles they lead, benefit from a professional environment that is globally more fulfilling than the one that prevails in many countries.

VIDEO - Prof. Mayana Zatz on the promotion of science

For Women in Science

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