II Event on Gender Equality of the SOMM alliance

Severo Ochoa - María de Maeztu alliance (SOMMa)
  • On May the 26th took place the second event on Gender Equality of the SOMM alliance, organized by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences for the SOMMa community.
  • International expert Donna Ginther gave her conference  “Women and STEM: Are Differences in Education and Career due to Stereotypes, Interest or Family?” as the central part of the event.
  • María Blasco, Zulema Altamirano and Rosina López-Alonso, each one a leader of scientific or political institutions, debated about the present and future of equality policy in science and research


Presentation of the event

The small representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics career (STEM) is a well-known, and long studied phenomenon. This under-representation concentrates particularly in the scientific fields with a higher mathematic load:  geosciences, engineering, economy, maths themselves, computation sciences and physical sciences. It is around this context that developed the “II Event on Gender Equality of the Severo Ocho – María de Maeztu Research Centres and Units”, organized by Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) on May the 26th, connecting with the future activity of the recently relaunched Working Group on Gender Balance.

The event was opened by José María Martell, director of ICMAT, together with Maria Blasco, director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and president of SOMMa, and with Ana Bravo, president of the Gender Equality Commission at ICMAT. Martell welcomed the attendees and presented his institution, highlighting the commitment and initiatives undertaken to attain gender equality. Next, diving into the subject of the event, Blasco elaborated further about the actions that made a difference at her research institution. Of note was the creation of a dedicated office, CNIO WISE, that became pivotal in the implementation and follow-up of practical measures, managing to turn many of the numbers, so that currently there are more women than men at the Direction Board, Scientific Advisory Board, as Distinguished Speakers, etc.


Round table: “Equality policies in Science”

The round table gathered Zulema Altamirano, Director of the Unidad de Mujeres y Ciencia (Women and Science unit) of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, Rosina López-Alonso Fandiño, Vice President of Organization and Institutional Relacions at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Maria Blasco. The round table (in Spanish) was moderated by journalist and Science Managing Editor at El País, Patricia Fernández de Lis, who kick-started the discussion with questions directed at spurring the participants to share their thoughts. For instance: after many years, it is wondered why gender equality is still a pending matter. How is this possible, what should be done? The conversation started.

The value of being able to change peoples’ minds was brought up: making people identify with the values of gender balance and equality was said to be a powerful lever, something for which being persistent is key. Not only raising awareness was considered important, though. Training not only researchers but also the support personnel to include the gender dimension in their work, it was said, could prove valuable (for instance, during project proposal writing).

Equality policies in Science, with Zulema Altamirano, Rosina Pérez-Alonso & Maria Blasco. Moderation: Patricia Fernández de Lis.

The CSIC Women and Science Commission, explained Lopez-Alonso, studies with data the evolution of the number and position of women at the CSIC, as well as the hurdles that they find to access the scientific career and the influencing factors for their success. The number of female researchers at CSIC, she informed, has not increased in the recent times (and has even receded). The exception is a slight increase at the top positions, which is influenced partly by the retirement of senior researchers. On the other hand, currently over 65 % of the positions at the CSIC management team are women, even if less women are accessing the scientific track itself. The importance of obtaining solid goes hand in hand with the taking of specific measures addressing the issues those indicate.

A lower proportion of women start a scientific research career after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree than men. A possible reason proposed is the very demanding nature of the research career and the associated problems with conciliation and personal life. It is highlighted that international mobility of researchers, oftentimes a requirement in the research career, also has personal and professional implications.

Women still abandon the research career more than do men. Maternity and conciliation are big subjects that often remain considered as matters concerning primarily women. This, in turn, affects job expectations, including job stability, flexibility, etc. It is raised that the research system was not originally designed with any significant participation of women, which may influence that its structure is difficult to pair with personal life.

Another subject deemed of importance is managing to have more women reach executive and decision-making positions, so they can help change work environments. Gender stereotypes keep existing, which in some environments, is suggested, may result in women being arbitrarily given less creative, less ambitious or less added-value tasks. The presence of more women in work teams would help avoid some of these situations, that need not be. Transforming the work environments is one way to accelerate change. As a specific measure that will be taken, Altamirano shared that a Gender Equality in R+D+i award is planned to be launched in order to help solidify structural change. Adds Altamirano, dialogue among the actors involved remains as necessary as ever, and it is being undertaken.

The impact of COVID19 was also addressed: it was reminded that the pandemic has clearly decreased the average number of articles published by women. This is an impact driven by the fact that caretaking and family life is still taxing women far more than men. As a result, women still dedicate more hours per day to housekeeping activities, time hence not invested in their career. According to a survey to 1600 people working at Spanish Public Research Organisms (OPIs), 60 % of them women, the mental load and stress also increased significantly during the pandemic. On a positive note, the importance of making visible the contributions of women towards the research in COVID19 was raised, such as the notorious Chinese expert in bat viruses, Shi Zhengli.

On a different note, it was asked, why do less women apply to funding or research position calls? Aspects of gender bias or the scarcity of women in certain fields, among others, are mentioned. A proposal to solve this was to design calls in such a way that it removes the influence of potential gender biases. Still, it is true that a correlation is found between the share of graduate women in a particular field of study and the share of women in that field as researchers. Yet, in all cases the share of women in the area is higher than the share of female Principal Investigators. The difference is even larger if one looks at sheer funding numbers, according to data at CSIC offered again by López-Alonso.

Once more, the importance of the chosen strategies being accompanied of a proper follow-up, reliable data collection and the use of adequate accomplishment indicators is stressed. Next, a round of questions from the attending public follows. One of the contributions indicates that oftentimes gender equality units do not feature personnel with specialized training on the matter, which they compensate with motivation and their personal time. Another problem shared by the public is that it is often hard to find men willing to commit their efforts to these units.

Another observation catching the attention was that in areas with small representation of women some women may inextricably be called a disproportionate amount of times to participate in panels, committees or other situations, such as media appearances. A suggestion was that this additional workload could be considered an additional merit in their CV. The round table closed upon the information by Altamirano that a practical guide will at some point be created and made available to help include the gender dimension in research and innovation settings.


Keynote talk: "Women & STEM: Are Differences in Education & Career due to Stereotypes, Interest or Family?"

Catalina Martinez of ICMAT presented Professor Donna Ginther, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas. Ginther started presenting some hypotheses regarding the question at hand, both regarding the choice of majors and of professional careers. The conference followed the path marked by these hypotheses and answers provided by research examining career outcomes and the propensity to study science and mathematics at various stages of education.

Differences in STEM careers, explained Ginther, start long before college and are related to mathematics coursework during middle and high school, the role of bias and of work climate. What could be leading to gender differences in the interest towards STEM careers and degrees? When does the difference start? What happens during the careers of women, after they completed their studies?

First part of the conference by Distinguished Professor Donna Ginther, of the University of Kansas.

Two differentiated areas in STEM can be distinguished: LPS (Life Science, Psychology and Social Science) and GEEMP (Geoscience, Economics, Engineering, Math and Computer Science & Physical Sciences). According to research presented by Ginther, girls received close to 55 % of all the bachelor's degrees as of 2011, but only 50 % of these were STEM degrees. In turn, less than 30 % of the degrees in STEM were in GEEMP, while those in LPS surpassed 60 %.

Except in Math and computer science, the share of bachelors degrees awarded to women, it was indicated, increased steadily since the seventies. As many as 70 % of the total PhD degrees went to women in the area of psychology, while most other disciplines remained close to or below 50 %. In Math, Computer Sciences and Engineering, the percentage was particularly low, around or below 25 %. Overall, the share of women at senior positions including faculty or tenure positions is lower than the share of women among PhDs. Again, Psychology is the area where women are most represented, also at the most senior positions (just over 50 %).

To understand the STEM gap, stated Ginther, it is important to understand the math gap as well. Connectedly, it is found that girls are less likely to take math-intensive Advanced Placement exams (AP exams). Data shown indicated that about 75000 fewer girls take these exams in STEM, a gap that can be explained by fewer girls taking the AP exams in Calculus, Computer Science and Physics AP exam categories.

In the US and UK, explains Ginther, girls are less likely to appear either at the left or the right tails of the Math score distribution (i.e. less likely to appear at the extremes of the grade scale), meaning that girls were found to be less likely to receive grades either among the top highest scores (right tail) or the bottom lowest scores (left tail) in AP exams, according to the research presented.

Regarding the percentage of female PhDs in a given discipline, work by Ginther and Kahn showed that Mathematics GRE Quantitative Score had a better correlation with the share of women at a given discipline than self-perceived “expectations of brilliance”. This indicated that the share of women at a given discipline could indeed be driven by math. In turn, the higher the math in a given area of research, the lower the share of female PhD researchers.

The differences in math emerge in the US as early as during middle school. Still, those gender differences regarding Math are mutable and can change at different stages of education. Negative influencing factors include stereotype threat or the awareness that some others may expect girls to do poorly in math, which may trigger Math anxiety.

Certain cultural and race factors seemed to play some role as well in the US. In societies where there is more gender equality (such as US New England), the math gap is narrow, while in more traditional states (in the US South), the gap is larger. Another example of these factors is that the performance in the top-tail (top 1 %) of math grades was found to be about equivalent in Asian women and men, while not so in other cases, in which the right-tail distribution increased the ratio of men.

Other factors were further mentioned: girls perform better when competing against other girls and worse where boys outnumbered girls. Women were found less likely to take a guess when there is a penalty involved when missing the correct answer suggesting a higher aversion to risk (Balgiga). Also, when the gender box was checked before US SAT exams, girls were found to do worse in average.

Time was devoted to a study by Lavy and Sand in Israeli primary schools about teacher stereotypical biases. The rationale in this study was that, if significant gender differences were found in national exams if compared with regular course grades, it would imply that there is indeed a bias of teachers in their treatment of boys with regard to girls. The grade distribution asymmetries in those settings showed that that English teachers had a certain bias favouring girls, while Mathematics teachers did so for boys. This could have an impact on professional choices regarding the pursuit of math-intensive careers later on.

While biases influence, Math performance can be influenced by positive intervention, said Ginther: for instance, girls and minorities tend to do better if they are primed before and during the class to perceive that math is something that can be learned (Good, Aronsom and Inzlicht; Bages and Martinot). Also, if a STEM problem is framed as an art problem instead of as a math problem, girls do much better. Hence how problems are framed is a factor that influences the outcome.

A pretty good correspondence was found in the share of girls taking advanced placement exams and the share later following a degree in these areas. The percentage was even higher in the case of psychology. The share of girls who afterwards undertake a PhD decreases in all disciplines, with the exception of Computer Science, where the ratio of females remains stable, just under 20 %. US-born women were found to be less likely to take degrees in STEM when the number of foreign students was higher (Orrenius & Zavodny). Institution characteristics may also influence the share of women majoring in Computer Science (Ginther & Rosenbloom).

In answer to a question posed by an attendee, Ginther reflected that the data provided does not entail that women are worse in math. She said, women entering less math-intensive careers or courses it is not a matter of capability but of preferences, biases, upgrading. Also the family context matters. It is rather about attitude than about aptitude, concluded Ginther.

Focus was shifted towards the professional career. As context, women are more likely to hold senior positions in LPS than in GEMP disciplines. It was asked: is this because they are not hired in those more math-intensive areas? In fields such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mathematics, the women that apply are in fact more likely to be offered a position than men, explains Ginther (Ceci and Williams). Hence, in fact, women candidates were over-selected for tenure track faculty positions, in view of the data discussed.

Second part of the talk by Donna Ginther, addressing professional career aspects.

Regarding the salary gap among stem PhDs, including academia and non-academia workers, the gap is of close to 30 % in graduates but of about 17 % in PhDs. Different factors were accounted for: number of working hours, field of study, work experience, etc. Yet, most of the gap could be explained by job characteristics such as for instance that women tend to work less in the higher-paying jobs of the private sector. Still, about 4.5 % of the pay gap remains unexplained, however.

Next, differences in US Federal Research Grants regarding the results of a survey in which researchers were asked whether they had ever received a Federal Grant, how many grants in total they had ever received, and how much cumulative dollar value those represented.

It was found that at research-intensive universities in the US women find no significant disadvantage in securing federal research funding, with the exception of professors in biomedicine (less likely to receive funding). In fact, in the full sample, female faculty researchers were more likely to have received federal funding across all fields studied than men except in math, computer science (no difference) and biomedicine (less likely to receive funding).

On the other hand, women tend to drop out of the labour force or else tend to abandon computer related or IT work much more so than do men. Women are significantly less likely to work in Computer Science than in Engineering. Interestingly, there was no effect of having children on the drop-out of women from the labour force if they worked in Computer Science or Information Technology positions. Other influencing factors were the share of males and of immigrants, both of which could, via cohort crowding effect, be leading to competitive pressure adversely affecting girls’ performance (Kahn and Ginther). In general, having young children reduces the likelihood to continue in the career, unless one works in Computer Science / IT.

Ginther concluded her talk recovering various messages of her presentation. Girls lag behind boys in mathematics interest and performance in the right tail of the maths score distribution. Yet, an early intervention to encourage math achievement could help reverse this, with action being taken as early as elementary school. In addition, the existing way of teaching mathematics may dissuade girls from taking additional math coursework. Teacher bias against girls in math happens early and sets girls on different career paths well before college.

Math self-image starts early, said Ginther, who carried on pointing out that role models are important both for college and major choice (Carrell, Page & West) and that more women are needed in academic STEM careers if one aims to increase the overall share of women in STEM.

On the other hand, once in academia women tend to progress in terms of publishing, hiring, salaries and promotion, even if in Computer Science and Economics they lag behind. Finishes Ginther insisting that work climate matters, with fields such as economics not being exempt from it. A number of questions of the audience were answered, after which the word was passed on to

After the talk of Prof. Donna Ginther, the word was passed on to Eva Gallardo, Full Professor of Mathematics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid who stressed the importance of having women  at positions where they have decisionmaking capacity and showing that science is also made by women. Finally, the event was closed by Noelia Vera, Secretary of State of Equality and Against Gender Violence with praise for the event and its organisation, stressing the necessity of such actions.


Media credits:

Frontpage picture of businesswoman is in the public domain and was downloaded from PxHere.

YouTube video streamed and recorded by ICMAT during the event.

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