In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This was part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda to fight the gender gap in science, technology and innovation. The objectives can be seen in resolution 70/212. It is a global collective effort to improve access to education, employment, fight discrimination, and recognize the talent of 50% of the population that is often not taken advantage of.
We are all aware at this point of the gender gap that exists, as well as glass ceilings. It is especially visible in the area of science and technology, as well as in leadership positions. In Spain, gender differences are even more acute than in other countries around us. That is why it is striking when women succeed simultaneously in both areas, and even more so when many do so in the same period of time.
We are witnessing a historic moment since, for the first time, three of the most important institutions in science in Spain –the CSIC, the CNIO and the ONT– are being headed by women. And believe me when I tell you that it is worth getting to know more about all of them, and the importance of references of this nature in our culture.
Let’s start with the Higher Council for Scientific Research (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas – CSIC), headed by Rosa María Menéndez López, PhD in Chemistry. This institution, founded in 1907 as the Board for the Expansion of Scientific Studies and Research (Junta para Ampliación de Estudios e Investigaciones Científicas), was first presided over by Dr. Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Twenty-two presidencies later, in 2017, the first woman among their ranks has been chosen, specializing in carbon materials and with a line of research on graphite and its medical and energetic applications.
Since 2011, the National Cancer Research Center (Centro Nacional Investigaciones Oncológicas) has been headed by Dr. María A. Blasco, an expert in biotechnology and leader of the Telomeres and Telomerasas group, with two honorary PhDs and multiple international recognitions and awards for her research work. The CNIO also has a majority of female researchers, accounting for 68% of its scientists. However, they still account for less than half of all managers, which is why they founded CNIO’s Women in Science Office (WISE) in 2012. It is a deeply active institution in the area of gender equality in science, a participant in the STEM Talent Girl initiative, and regularly hosts events to raise awareness of the role of women in science.
The National Transplant Organization (Organización Nacional de Trasplantes – ONT), an organization that has positioned Spain as a world leader in transplants for 26 consecutive years, has been directed since 2017 by Dr. Beatriz Domínguez-Gil, PhD in Internal Medicine, who in addition to introducing new techniques that were not used in our country, has fostered international collaboration between institutions.
Science, leadership, successes, recognition. Having these three brilliant women at the head of our institutions is a source of pride for all of us, and this fact does not however mean that future female leaders will have it much easier. While the majority of students at universities are women, the number falls below 30% in physics and engineering careers. And even when these young women finish their studies, the number of them who effectively consolidate their vocation and dedicate themselves professionally in the same area decreases. And even fewer of them reach managerial positions within their profession, meaning that there are not many female references at the head of the institutions, which in turn causes fewer girls to choose this type of careers.
But let’s not focus on this downward spiral and think positively. When girls choose these studies, they stand out; and the grades attest to this. My personal perception is that we feel that we have to demonstrate more, that we are traveling a path that was not expected, and that failure is not an option. This is part of the machismo that continues to exist in our society, where the scientific and analytical intelligence of women is questioned. But it is often an act of rebellion to fight against these prejudices, and a wear and tear that causes us to shorten careers or professional ambitions
It is also no coincidence that Dr. Menéndez López, Dr. Blasco and Dr. Domínguez-Gil belong to or have strong links with fields of research linked to medicine. This is a field where women are placed due to our supposed “biological vocation” as “caregivers”. It is something that, while it shouldn’t have negative connotations –at the end of the day… what’s wrong with caregiving?– hinders us in choosing other fields of research and in occupying positions of authority.
The future is in the hands of everyone. The demands can’t only come from women, and a large part of society should not be content to lose 50% of its potential talent. Of course, it is social justice, it is ethics, it is the need for progress. And to a large extent it is education and the deconstruction of stereotypes, and equal opportunities. But it is a long-distance race and it cannot be eased off on or questioned, because that would lead to it falling into the downward spiral again.