Tag Archive | women

Senior female researchers, still too few

This post should perhaps have been published on March 8th. But then, achieving gender equality in science is not something that can be concentrated on a single day; it’s an unresolved and impending issue that we need to think about constantly.


A group of the female group leaders at the PRBB

On December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the 11th of February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said on the occasion of the first observance of this day, “the world needs science and science needs women”. Yet, women are still underrepresented in the sciences, especially in high-level, decision-making positions. With differences in countries and disciplines, a general trend arises, with only 28 percent of researchers across the world being female, according to the most recent UNESCO Science Report.

At the PRBB, we are not foreign to this problem. Even though about 60% of the total scientific staff working at the park are women, they only represent 30% of the positions at the group leader level. Also, our flagship series of conferences, the PRBB-CRG conferences taking place twice a week, is also skewed with only about 13% of the invited speakers being female scientists (average from 2011 to 2014).

Positive action is needed to change this, and the PRBB and its centres are starting to make this a priority. In 2015, 12 of the 63 (19%) PRBB-CRG speakers were women. Albeit still clearly too low, this represents a 4% increase from the average of the previous four years, and we aim to increase this percentage even more this year: out of the 37 PRBB-CRG talks planned so far for 2016, 13 are by women (about 30%). This percentage may change along the year, as more talks are organised, but it’s undeniable a beginning far better than any other year.

All centres at the PRBB are also working hard at improving conditions for their female staff as well as encouraging the hiring of more female scientists.

The CRG’s Gender Balance Committee was created in 2013 following the centres’ distinction with the HR Excellence in Research’ logo from the European Commission. Its mission is “to promote equal opportunities for men and women at the centre and foment women’s advancement in scientific career”. Chaired by Isabelle Vernos, it is formed by women and men from both administration and scientific backgrounds and ranging from PhD and technicians to PIs. The CRG is also leading the European Project LIBRA: Leading Innovative Measures to Reach Gender Balance in Research, awarded within the H2020 program and with the participation of ten European research institutes, all members of the EU-LIFE alliance. Its goal is to implement Gender Equality Plans in all institutes addressing four key areas, from recruitment policies and career development, to work-life balance and even the sex and gender dimension of research. Further to this ‘good intentions’ the CRG has taken specific action by organising some seminars related to the Women in Science topic, and with a Women Scientists Support Grant with two calls per year for young female scientists (PhD or postdoc level) with maternity responsibilities.

Similarly, the CEXS-UPF, recently awarded a “Maria de Maetzu” distinction, has also a Gender Action Plan that includes grants to support talented young female scientists with maternity responsibilities in their scientific career development. The Gender Action Plan also envisages other measures such as ensuring that at least 30% of the members of committees at the centre are female, or improving work-life balance conditions.

The IBE (CSIC-UPF) is a younger centre, and an ‘Equality commission’ was created just last summer which is raising awareness about the issue. They are working on creating an ‘Equality plan’ and trying to set up a mentoring program for PhD students and postodcs. They already have managed to tip the balance of their external evaluating committee, formerly composed by six male members, to three men and three women. Now, they aim to reach a 40% female rate in their invited speakers. “We are just starting, but we believe gender balance in science is a key issue, and we try to attract people’s attention to this subject. Every time we find something of interest – material, studies or any kind of documentation – we circulate it to the whole institute” says Elena Casacuberta, one of the instigators of the commission.

The CREAL, the CMRB and the IMIM are the three PRBB centres that have the most balanced men-women ratio amongst their staff, with 54%, 50% and 45%, respectively, of their senior researchers being women. But they also keep this issue in mind, and continue doing some actions to avoid this delicate balance to be upset.

At CREAL, with their committee for equity and the management of diversity formed by representatives from all stages, they don’t stop at the men-women issue, but they aim to consider all other collectives which may be in minority. In 2015, they created an Equity Plan and are taking actions, such as news in the intranet about women and research every fortnight, an online course on the topic, or talks about experts on flexible policies to achieve work-family balance.

The CMRB has an Equality Committee, formed in 2014, which has prepared a series of documents such as guides with non-sexist language, a protocol for a fair staff selection or an anti-bullying protocol. Some of the specific actions they have taken are the setting up, about five years ago, of a room for breast-feeding mothers, open to all women at the PRBB, or some changes in the recruiting protocols, for example asking job applicants not to include any personal data, such as marital status, in their CVs. Also, last year they had an awareness campaign with an online course on gender equality compulsory for all staff.

The IMIM has also guides for non-sexist language –  and the institution is revising all their web content and other documents to ensure they all abide by these rules –  and protocols against sexual bullying included in their Equality Plan (2013-2016).

We have done a lot, but a lot more remains to be done. The road for female scientists is long and winding, as the Beatles said; but it must be walked until we managed to cross that door.


Report by Maruxa Martínez-Campos, scientific editor at the PRBB.

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

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