If Maria Emilia is a Latin American scientist, half of her colleagues are probably also women, but her chances to be admitted to her country's National Academy of Sciences are much lower than those of her male colleagues, and her chances to be the leader of her National Agency of Research are close to zero.

What are the main challenges facing women in science in Latin America and the Caribbean? And what policies would (or should) support them?

Medellin, Colombia

Almost half of PhD degrees in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are completed by women and almost half of researchers are female. A first look at these indicators might give the erroneous perception that there is no gender imbalance in the region. But there are many hidden factors.

One hidden factor is that there is a gap in women’s access to promotions and to decision-making positions. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences has had 21 presidencies since its foundation in 1916, none of which have been held by a woman. If we consider the demographics of Brazilian researchers in the Academy of Sciences, we see that only 13% are women. The overall picture in LAC is quite heterogeneous: it ranges from 27% in Cuba, to 9% in Bolivia.

Starting point

Where does this phenomenon start? The gender gap in science and mathematics is already noticeable at school. In PISA tests, boys outperform girls in Latin America more than in any other part of the world. But what are the causes of this difference?

This is an essential question, since a students performance in maths is a strong predictor of later educational attainment and achievement. There are two big issues that affect our capacity to design educational policies in LAC: heterogeneity, and lack of information surrounding these issues.

A study performed in Israel suggests that the bias against girls in math is exerted by their teachers, which affects their achievement and could have deep and long-term effects on their future performance. Similar studies have yet to be performed in LAC. However, PISA data shows that the expectations of parents, with regard to their children's education, might be a factor. Even at the same level of performance, parents have higher expectations of their sons in terms of working in STEM. With respect to gender bias in the classroom, the research in LAC is not conclusive. Again, we lack enough information to devise proper policies.

Ongoing challenges

What happens when these pupils go to college? There are multiple issues that affect women, especially in careers where they are in a minority. These include; lack of role models, unconscious bias, and their home environment. But there is another widespread phenomenon that seems hard to eradicate, and that deeply affects their career performance: sexual harassment in academia.

This problem has been a taboo for decades, one could even say that it is now part of the ambient culture of STEM research, so it is difficult to get exact numbers. Young women at graduate and postgraduate level are especially vulnerable to sexual misconduct. They depend on their advisors to finish their degrees, obtain recommendations to continue their studies, or get future jobs. Reporting misconduct can severely endanger their careers. This is particularly problematic in places where there are few universities, since this endogamy plays a larger role. Therefore, sexual harassment is under-reported, so consequently the real numbers have not been surveyed. However, we are arriving at a time of big change in academic culture, and we will probably learn more about the way this contributes to the gender gap in the near future.

Another issue that affects students and young female researchers, especially in a number of countries in LAC, is the lack of medical insurance covering maternity leave, and the lack of maternal leave stated within scholarships. Furthermore, maternal gaps in scientific production are rarely taken into consideration in the evaluation of young women scientists. This seriously affects their eligibility for promotion.

At the stage of becoming an established scientist, women in the region face additional problems. Their visibility as accomplished scientists, and therefore their access to prizes and nominations, is much less than those of their male counterparts, as two studies undertaken in Mexico and Uruguay clearly demonstrate. What can be done to improve this?

The way forward

There are five pillars to focus on: information, safety, incentives, visibility and networking.

There is a long way to go in respect to information: more research is needed to detect the key aspects behind gender disparities in the region in order to apply fruitful policies. It is still unknown what the basic factors leading to the gender gap at the school level are. Is there a teachers bias? If so, is it relevant? Is the mothers education a determinant? How does the socio-economic status affect the gender gap?

There is also a lack of information about gender bias at the college stage. It is particularly urgent to survey the extent to which sexual harassment affects college students and young researchers. It is also important that the National Researchers Systems in LAC provide gender-disaggregated data in their databases, to facilitate glass-ceiling studies similar to the ones performed in Mexico and Uruguay.

Safety is relevant if we want to improve the conditions of career development for women in science in LAC. In order to ensure career progression, it is essential to have a safe environment. Notable examples include the campaign 'No es normal' (It’s not normal) at Los Andes University in Colombia and the Protocol of institutional intervention at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina, to prevent gender-violence, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. It is also crucial to ensure that women have medical insurance covering maternity throughout their careers.

A policy of incentives at all stages would be recommendable. A good step at school could be to promote the participation of girls at Science Olympics, maybe guaranteeing a place for a female participant. Mentoring activities like Girls in Tech have shown good results in some of our countries, as well as hackathons with strong female participation.

Prizes like L’Oreal-Unesco “For Women in Science” and the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World have a noticeable and positive impact on women in science in Latin America and the Caribbean. But more of this is necessary if we want to see real, long-term changes.

To increase the visibility of women in science is also a crucial step. An interesting project would be to organize regular Wikipedia edit-a-thons with Women in Science as the main topic. This has been successfully done, for instance, in Uruguay. An even more stimulating possibility could be to incorporate high school students into the edit-a-thons, so that they learn how to be editors. They would be doing research, while at the same time gaining an insight into women working (or having worked) in science near them.

It is also important that women in science engage with the media, and are visible on social media. This is sometimes hard to accomplish since women, in addition to their careers, are usually overwhelmed with supporting administrative, teaching and outreach activities. It is imperative, however, that they make themselves visible, not only as role models, but also so that their voices are taken into consideration as important inputs for public opinion.

Finally, networking is fundamental. Sharing experiences and discussing solutions with peers that have faced similar problems is relieving. It is also a source of empowerment. Partnerships help to promote best practices that can certainly foster a stronger role for women scientists. Among other networks, there is IANAS, GenderInSITE and especially OWSD, which welcomes any woman with a master’s degree in science.

Women are essential in science since science is nurtured by multiple perspectives. We should therefore promote diverse participation through all means. To that end we should: encourage more research about the causes of gender gaps, establish more incentives for girls and women in STEM, create a safe environment for women in academia, and increase the visibility of women in science. Because science flourishes with diversity, and diversity is not possible without women.

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