Press Gender in the Portugal Research Arena: A Case Study in European Leadership

News | 16-06-2021 in Elsevier

Portugal has focused on gender diversity in general for many years. In your opinion, when did focus on this topic start and why was it considered so important? When did this feed through to research?

In the 1980s, the research leadership in Portugal—particularly José Mariano Gago, who was president of what would become the Foundation for Science and Technology and then became minister of Science and Technology—was very conscious of the role of women in research. When Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, we began awarding high numbers of scholarships for women to pursue their PhDs, and later postdoctoral fellowships, at universities in the UK, US, Germany and Switzerland. We wanted to create and build a research community in Portugal that specifically included women. For the most part, this policy has continued. In recent years, as in other periods of crisis, we have experienced a “brain drain” as these trained researchers decline to return to Portugal. But the consistent financing of scholarships for women in research has made a big difference.

Another longstanding focus in Portugal is on engaging very young children in science. Portugal created a network of Ciencia Viva museums across the country to reach the public, but in particular young people. Ciencia Viva also leads programmes that bring science into the schools. In addition, Portugal publicly recognises the achievements of famous scientists, women scientists, and this visibility has created a culture that celebrates the work of women in science. In fact, some of the most important research organisations in Portugal are now led by women: Leonor Beleza at the Champalimaud Foundation, Isabel Mota of the Gulbenkian Foundation and Helena Pereira as president of the Foundation for Science and Technology. These role models are important.

One phenomenon that I’ve noticed is that once we reached a critical mass in the number of women entering university in research, it was much easier for them to continue and succeed, which then encourages other women toward a research career. When I studied mechanical engineering, there were only two women in my class of 120. As those numbers increased, women no longer felt as isolated, and felt included as part of the group.

Portugal never moved toward quotas in research or university careers. Instead, we took a positive approach by starting early and incentivising careers in science with scholarships. It takes time and Chapter 2 | Maria da Graça Carvalho, European Parliament Gender in the Portugal Research Arena: A Case Study in European Leadership 41 consistency, over several decades, to achieve cultural change. We have been very successful in attracting women into research in biotechnology, chemistry and the health sector. Among medical doctors, the majority are women. Some professional organisations have been advocating for a more balanced approach, but I have resisted calls for quotas.

Are there initiatives, policies or interventions that have emerged within Portugal and/or field in the last three to five years that you feel have impacted progress and should be monitored to assess impact? 

While we have been very successful in attracting women to research careers, we have been less focused on career development. Interventions are needed to address issues such as the leaky pipeline and the pay gap. We have near parity in pay between women and men among younger researchers, but this starts decreasing along their career in a very striking way. With the financial crisis in Portugal, and now the pandemic, our public institutions have not been able to recruit as much—in fact, a career in research has become quite precarious, particularly for women, who are more likely than men to abandon a research career.

What value do data and an evidence base offer as tools to policymakers and institutional leaders to address issues of gender diversity and equity? 

It is very important to have the data because it can help policymakers design policies to address the problems that persist. Though Portugal is doing well in attracting women to careers in research by investing in their training, the country and society will not benefit if these women researchers do not have the conditions they need to succeed. We really need to look at these data to understand and address these problems.

Given the diversity of perceptions on gender issues, what do you consider to be the most important factors that influence progress toward equity for women and men in research?

The question of confidence is very important. The report’s finding that women publish less based on the stage of their career may be related to family responsibilities, but I think it is also linked to confidence. I have found that women are less confident than men in publishing their work, and they are less confident in giving public lectures and interviews, which are required for exams, advancement and high-level posts. Men are also more likely than women to apply for a post, even if they are not qualified. This lack of confidence means that women are not able to demonstrate their full potential as scientists. Also, men benefit from networking in a way that women do not. Fewer women in Portugal are directors or heads of universities because the system continues to depend on personal contacts and networking. I experienced this in my training and though it might be getting better, issues with networking continue to affect career advancement for women.

What combination of interventions do you think are necessary to accelerate greater equity for women and men in research? 
The Foundation for Science and Technology has begun offering training for skills such as interviewing, but we need more interventions that address the confidence issue. Overall, Portugal needs to apply the same kind of attitude toward career development that we have applied in attracting women to careers in science.

What information/insight from the report do you find particularly interesting and important for policymakers and institutional leaders to consider in Portugal or in a specific subject area(s)?  
Portugal, Brazil and Argentina performed very well in the report. These countries all have very traditional societies. It could be that from a very early age, girls understand that the way to carve out a position in society is by doing well in school. I come from a very traditional region in the south of Portugal, and I made a conscious decision early on to be a good student. To be the best student. In fact, girls in Portugal Chapter 2 | Maria da Graça Carvalho, European Parliament Gender in the Portugal Research Arena: A Case Study in European Leadership 43 consistently perform better in school than boys at all levels. I have heard the same from women researchers in Turkey, where women have excelled in physics, engineering and maths, and now are heads of some institutions. They feel that the way out of a very conservative society is to be the best in class.

Trends identified from scientific publications are confirmed for both awarded grants and even more so when analysing patents. What does this say about a gender innovation gap? 

I expected to see this because women in Portugal are doing more fundamental research than applied research. We still do not have a significant number of women represented in the digital area. In addition, most researchers in Portugal remain in the public sector, rather than being hired in the private sector. We will need to push the investment we have made in our researchers so that the private sector can also benefit.

Thinking about the future of gender diversity and equity in research globally, where do you think Portugal will be in 10 years’ time and what organisational and/or cultural issues do you think will influence change most significantly? 
We need to address the family-work balance, but this will be very difficult, especially in countries where women traditionally take care of the family. We need to boost women’s confidence, so they are successful as their careers progress, so that we do not lose the investments made in the early stages of their career.

What could other countries learn from Portugal’s policy choices? What recommendations would you propose to other policy makers?
At a very young age, girls decide what they want to do, or even more, what they don’t want to do. So it’s important to start engaging children and young girls in science very early and consistently. But interventions need to address the entire career pathway, from training to recruitment to later stages of career development and advancement. The leaky pipeline, the glass ceiling, the pay gap – all these phenomena require policies that are consistent and sustained over years and decades.

 Interviewed for Elsevier report Gender in the Portugal  Research Arena: A Case  Study in European Leadership

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