Alice Abreu: Women for Science

Abreu - image CIÊNCIA

Research Committee on Sociology of Science and Technology (RC23) presents:


Gender Equality in Science and Technology: Why Is It Important for the Future We Want?


Alice Abreu



Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in 1995, approved the inclusion of several hard-fought paragraphs on women and science, a large body of research and literature has been dedicated to the theme. However, many of the challenges then mentioned remain relevant. There are still much more men than women in scientific careers; boys are much more prone to choose a scientific study than girls; when women do enter a scientific career they are concentrated in certain disciplines, are paid less, have more difficulty in receiving research funds, and rarely reach the higher posts of leadership and decision making.

Having more women in science is, however, essential for any sustainable future we imagine. No country today can envisage a sustainable development without investing heavily in science and technology and many countries are doing so. Nevertheless, no country will achieve its full potential without including women, half of the population, in this process. More women in science leads to better science. They bring diversity and different perspectives to the research effort, and therefore they contribute to the construction of more reliable and effective knowledge.

Looking through a gender lens to the science of sustainability is also essential. We must use a gender dimension to understand fully how activities of men and women differ and how therefore both each use and act upon the environment in different ways, just as, for example, the impact of climate change and environment degradation is different upon women and men. This is especially important in societies where rural activities are still central, where women are responsible for the gathering and preparation of food, linking, therefore, their everyday activities with relevant issues such as energy, water consumption, and use of biodiversity resources. However, it is also important in developing countries with a more advanced level of urbanization, where men and women have very different activities and can react to and use very differently the resources available to them.

The extensive literature in the last twenty years has described some progress and highlighted the many issues that remain. This brief article will try to condense their main findings and show the importance of sociology in understanding and illuminating the related questions.

A first large area of study had to do with women for science, looking at how women fare in the scientific arena. The processes of qualification, recruitment, retention and advancement are key to understanding how sex segregation works to funnel women and men into different scientific positions. In the last decades, extensive social science research has identified the organizational processes that limit women’s access to certain disciplinary fields and, especially, to leadership positions in science and technology. They point to a range of factors that explain the persistent under-representation of women but also show how specific institutional and national contexts matter in various countries and regions of the world.

A gender lens is essential to understand the complex social processes that shape scientists’ careers in gendered ways, metaphorically referred to as the “leaky pipeline,” the “crystal labyrinth” and the “glass ceiling” for women.  The processes of qualification and training, recruitment, retention and advancement all occur within schools, universities, and workplaces, the institutional sites that shape large-scale segregation outcomes

One of the most important issues related to women in science is how to attract girls and young women to scientific disciplines. While there has been much progress in girls’ education in many parts of the world, there are still some important differences within and across nations in terms of the likelihood that girls and women will stay on an academic pathway that will lead to a successful career in computing, physics, chemical sciences, or mathematics/statistics.  While women now constitute a majority of university students in many regions, including North and South America and Europe, sex segregation across fields of study is persistent.

Furthermore, whatever the country, whatever the discipline, and whatever the proportion of women among the undergraduate population, men are selected disproportionately to their numbers in the recruitment pool at every stage on the career ladder. Many reasons have been given to this persistent state of affairs. Although the majority of Western countries now have equal employment laws that attempt to block overt discrimination, some factors are repeatedly reported as contributing to overt or perceived discrimination of women. They are related to the types of networks that women may be involved or not involved in,  and the organizational structures of the workplace, such as recruitment and promotion practices, selection and allocation of research funding and the workplace culture, which affect career advancement.

Networks within the workplace are important for career advancement; they are a source of information for workers and provide access to the informal work culture, and a key means by which scientists form collaborative relationships. Subtle gender biases and societal norms that regulate interactions between men and women can affect the extent to which women access the right networks to ensure successful career transitions. More than having just a glass-ceiling keeping them from the higher positions, women scientists, in fact, have to navigate through a crystal labyrinth in every step of their career.

The second set of institutional factors are associated with organizational practices of recruitment, promotion, and allocation of resources, more often than not intertwined with the issue of networks.  Access to research funding is an important issue to explain how segregation has effects on scientific careers. There is evidence that women tend to have smaller funds and projects. In addition, pay gap persists between women and men; in all countries where this information is available, women earn less than men do. The gender gap in pay in part is due to horizontal segregation: the highest paid scientific fields tend to be those where women are rare. Recruitment, too, has traditionally relied on social networks, which means that women’s limited access to networks would continue to disadvantage them relative to their male colleagues within the hiring process.

The other process that has been a challenge for women relates to advancement, reaching the positions at the top of the scientific world. As bluntly put by an important report from the European Union, “the existence of a “glass ceiling” or “sticky floor” for women trying to progress to senior positions is well documented and affects all occupational sectors, even those that are dominated by women”.  The social science evidence has clearly pointed out the issues that contribute to this situation, such as work-life conflict; availability of child- and elderly care; the challenges faced by dual-career couples; pay gap also for mothers in particular; as well as mobility-related obstacles due to family commitments.

As for the case of research funding, the mechanisms for the construction of excellence in science, and therefore to the path to the highest positions in the system, involves numerous “gatekeepers”: members of national science and technology council, members of evaluation committees and panels, external reviewers, science editors, and many others. What is clear in all the research evidence is that, in most countries, power, decision-making and other gatekeeping activities continue to be dominated by men, in many cases, overwhelmingly so.

As research findings show, when looking at the construction of excellence, it is important to distinguish conceptually between the ways in which scientific excellence is defined and measured, and the specific procedures for assessing scientific excellence.  There is much evidence that the definition of scientific excellence and the measurement of scientific production are based on models that are still clearly masculine

The other relevant research area is the one related to science for women, especially important when looking at sustainability but where production is much scarcer. This has to do with the study of how science and technology could contribute to women’s livelihood and development activities in important sectors like agriculture, water and energy. Related to this is the role of women in innovation. It is increasingly recognized that it is necessary to ensure greater access of women to education, capital and markets, not only in micro and small sized enterprises, but also in large sized enterprises, as a means to promoting their involvement in innovation.

What this large body of scientific literature makes clear is that to promote gender equality in science it is necessary not only to support women but also to reform the institutions and to overcome gender bias in knowledge production. To achieve this there is a pressing need of better sex disagregated data and well thought indicators, which would complement the qualitative studies that indicate the relevant areas of research. Mainstreaming gender analysis and focusing in implementation and evaluation of gendered equality policies in science is vital and many recent developments show that we can hope this will be an integral part of the future we want.



European Commission (2002). National Policies on Women and Science in Europe. The Helsinki Group on Women and Science.

European Commission (2012). Meta-Analysis of Gender and Science Report. Synthesis Report. EUR 25138

Frehill, L.M., Abreu, A., & Zippel, K. (2015). “Gender, Science and Occupational Sex Segregation”. In: Pearson, W. Jr., Frehill, L.M. & McNeely, C.L. eds. Advancing Women in Science. An International Perspective. Springer.

OECD, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2006). Women in Scientific Careers. Unleashing the potential.

UNCTAD (2011) Applying a Gender Lens to Science, Technology and Innovation. Current Studies on Science, Technology and Innovation No 5.



AliceAbreu 2015 - best photoAlice R. de P. Abreu is Emeritus Professor of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in Brazil, Vice-President of the ISA Research Committee on Sociology of Science and Technology (RC23), and Acting Director of GenderInSITE, an international program promoting gender in science, technology, innovation and engineering.  Professor Abreu has previously been Director of the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Regional Coordinator of the ICSU Rio+20 Initiative, Vice-President of Brazil’s National Research Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), Director of the Office of Education, Science and Technology of the Organization of American States (OAS), President of the ISA Research Committee on Sociology of Work (RC30), and two-term member of the ISA Executive Committee.  Professor Abreu has published extensively in sociology of work and gender. She completed her PhD at the University of São Paulo, Brazil and her M.Sc. at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her numerous awards include the Ordem Nacional do Mérito Científico (Comendador) of Brazil; the Palmes Académiques (Officier) of the Ministère de la Jeunesse, de l’Éducation Nationale et de la Recherche. France, the Florestan Fernandes Prize for Sociology, and the ANPOCS Award in Academic Excellence Antonio Flavio Pierucci for Sociology.


Banner Image: Photo courtesy of Feminspire.
Photo of solar panel courtesy of Chansangli, China.


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