Tag Archive | research

Why are we so few? About women in science



Mar Albà, a PI at the IMIM, one of the centres at the PRBB, has just published in her group’s blog a reflection on the issue of the under-representation of women in permanent academic positions. A topic that has gained new impetus following the recent controversial comments by Tim Hunt.

A rare event which should not be that rare encouraged her to write it. We invite you to read her post entitled “Why are we so few?” and to reflect on this, sadly, still current topic.


You can read a related interview to Joan Steitz (Yale) published in the PRBB’s magainze El·lipse and in this blog here.

“Being in the minority is part of the problem”, Joan Steitz (Yale University and HHMI)

6, Joan Steitz

Joan Steitz, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, came to Barcelona in January 2015 to participate in the CRG faculty retreat. Considered one of the founders in the field of RNA biology and world-renowned for her many seminal contributions, she is also a prominent activist, promoting scientific careers for women. Mother to a son who followed in her footsteps and wife to a Nobel Prize winner, during her stay at the PRBB she gave a talk about her research into non-coding RNAs and participated in a round table about women in science.

Is science a particularly sexist field?

Not really. I would say it’s comparable to law, finances… all high-pressure and competitive professions seem to have the same problem! Actually, a recent issue of Science shows that the most sexist fields seem to be those which people think you need to be a genius to work in – like physics, and even philosophy! Within science, the biosciences are typically viewed as the most gender-balanced.

When you started, there were virtually no female role models in research… how did that affect you?

Well, as student and even a postdoc, it didn’t even enter my mind that I would become a group leader! I was shocked when I had a job offer. Molecular biology was a new field and there were hardly any US universities that had molecular biologists, so that helped. But I didn’t feel prepared for it at all! However, I always like to rise to challenges and I thought if someone can do it, why not me? But it was scary. There were only a couple of other women at Yale at the time.

Have you ever experienced discrimination due to your gender?

I have seen terrible things happen to others but I have only experienced minor issues. Probably like a lot of women in my generation, I feel I’ve been very lucky and escaped major discrimination.

How has the situation improved over the last 20 years?

Things haven’t changed enough, but they have changed incredibly! There used to be very overt discriminatory comments. Now everyone is more sensitised and these things are not said overtly – that doesn’t mean they are not said in private, at dinner tables, for example. And women still get paid less than men for the same job. So we’re still not there.

What can be done and who should do it?

All we have to do is increase the number of women in science, because being in the minority is definitely not helpful; it’s part of the problem! I don’t know how to do that, though. But changes should come from the top. I’ve seen things improving with a new director, only to go backwards again with another. Also, funding agencies and governments should collect information about the percentages of women applying for and getting grants, make it public, give it to people who are taking the decisions, use it to compare over time and see how things are changing. We need to keep an eye on this.

Some countries are better than others…

A good example is the “120% support grant” in Switzerland. A female researcher who has a small child can choose to work part-time and have a 20% reduction in her salary. She then receives 40% of her salary from the government, which she can use for hiring someone to help in her research, or for child care.

Any advice?

There are implicit bias tests which have uncovered really impressive things. You don’t realise how biased you yourself are and how subject to stereotypes until you do the tests. So, I would suggest all researchers do them and reflect on their own attitudes! Maybe part of the change can come from within.


This interview was published by Maruxa Martínez-Campos in the March 2015 edition of El·lipse, the monthly newspaper of the PRBB

Books and authors that inspire scientific vocations!

thewaythingsworkAt the PRBB we started a campaign about a month ago called #passion4science. We are asking researchers around the globe to try and pinpoint an event, person, book, whatever, that caught their attention as a child and got them excited about science, about trying to understand, to learn, to experiment…

We will be posting the results in storify and will do another post about it here soon, as well as sharing them through social media, so keep an eye out for #passion4science!

But since today is International Book Day – and in Catalonia, where we are located, it’s a very spetial day, SantJordi, the patron of our region – we want to share a subset of those comments with you.

Books that ignite #passion4science!

These refer to books that respondents remember as being crucial in initiating their fascination with science. Enjoy them!

“Science is a good weapon to fight crises”

ellipse 60 Entrevista a Ian mattaj


Ian Mattaj, came to the PRBB last October for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the CRG. This Scottish researcher is the director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, the largest molecular biology institution in Europe. He is also president of the CRG’s scientific advisory board, and he gave us his view on science at the CRG, in Catalonia, Spain and Europe.

How would you sum up the CRG´s first 10 years?

The CRG is remarkably successful for such a young institution. They have been recruiting foreign researchers, not so common in Spain, and they have set up some excellent programmes. It usually takes about 10 to 15 years for a research centre to really develop high quality, but the CRG has done so from the beginning. They have put in place mechanisms, some of them copied from the EMBL, which help ensure the quality of the research.

How has being part of the PRBB helped?

The CRG has no critical mass in every area, so having colleagues close by has definitely helped. We have just done the evaluations of the groups and I have heard about research clubs for neuroscience and computational biology, where researchers from the various centres at the PRBB, and even from other groups in Barcelona, meet and discuss their work every two weeks. This type of environment is really advantageous; it helps foster good research.

What do you think of current research in Catalonia and Spain?

Spain has produced many brilliant scientists, so the education system is obviously working, but the organisation of the public research system and researchers needs to change, along the lines we see in some institutes such as the CRG. Also continuous strong support from the political area is needed. The message of the Catalan government has been to support research that is excellent at international standard, and this is obviously the right way to improve all scientific productivity and even help the country.

How is the economic crisis affecting the R&D system in Europe?

Different countries have different degrees of economic problems, and some like Sweden or Germany have actually increased their budget for science, because they believe it is a good weapon to help fight possible future crises. In other countries I understand that cuts might be needed, but there are different ways to make them. In my opinion, if necessary, only non-high quality research should be cut.

What are the biggest challenges in molecular biology for the coming years?

There are different sorts of challenges. There are aspects of biology about which we know so little that we cannot even imagine understanding them, such as how the brain works to produce consciousness, the sense of self etc., that it is a big long-term challenge.

In the shorter term, I think an important issue will be how we can apply the recent technological developments in biomedicine, such as next generation sequencing, to improve our health. The possibilities are endless, but so far they are only possibilities.

This interview was published in the december 2012 edition of El·lipse, the monthly newspaper of the PRBB

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