Women and Girls in Science: are they alone in this fight?

By Tiago Gonçalves, Research Assistant at the Centre for Telecommunications and Multimedia (CTM)

On December 22, 2015, the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) declared February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Considering the challenge INESC TEC posed me, namely (try) to present a man’s outlook on this important milestone, I will try to show the importance of bringing the entire scientific community together to celebrate this day. First of all, it’s crucial to acknowledge that participating – directly or indirectly – in this commemoration means contributing to the full exercise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Obviously, all people are different, and while it is important to acknowledge said differences, it is also critical to ensure that we are not exploring them to perpetuate unfair norms and rules, which could benefit people with certain characteristics (e.g., sexual orientation, sex, skin tone) to the detriment of others, in an opaque (and incorrect) way. At this time, we know that women are still underrepresented in research and innovation careers, despite representing approximately half of the universe of people holding a PhD. At the very least, this makes one wonder. 

Allow me to confess that I’ve started to perceive these issues in a more active and serious way quite recently, due to the simple fact that I have a younger sister, and that I’ve witnessed some of her ordeals, which occur only because she was born a woman. The more information I gathered, the more I realised that the probability of some of these things happening to me was close to zero (yes, it seems that, apparently, the notorious gender bias is real). At that moment, I also realised that, as a man in the Science (and Civil Society) domain, I can simply take advantage of the seeming privilege and seek justice. In fact, this idea is anything but new. We should travel back to 1903, the year Antoine Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, née Sklodowska, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie’s name was not included initially – despite people knowing that she and Pierre had carried out the entire research together. Considering those times, Pierre could have simply ignored this issue and receive the prize he (also) deserved. The truth is that, knowing that his voice would be heard, she fought for Marie’s name to be included in the nomination, and this ended up being an important part of the history of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In 1906, Marie Curie was also the first woman to hold the position of College Professor, replacing her deceased husband Pierre Curie. Accounts like that of Marie and Pierre Curie help me realise how important men’s actions are towards advocating feminist values and celebrating milestones like February 11 or March 8 (International Women’s Day). Contrary to what many (men and women) seem to think, it is not about valuing one sex or gender over another. It is about ending stigmas, deconstructing stereotypes, fighting biases, and changing the paradigm. Therefore, being a man and fighting for women’s rights is about fighting for a fairer and equitable society, where we acknowledge differences, but fight, side by side, for equal rights and opportunities. 

I do not believe that we should force people, whether female or male, to pursue certain academic or professional areas to fill quotas (although I admit their importance in certain cases). However, this does not mean that we should disregard initiatives that raise awareness among certain groups of people that are historically discriminated against – namely actions that help them understand that they are free to be whatever they want to be. More than knowing that there is an attempt to positively discriminate against these groups, there is, in my opinion, a way of telling them that we, as a Society, are fighting to make sure that their choices are not negatively influenced in an abusive way. Fortunately, in this context, there are relevant people in their areas who try to contribute to solving these issues. In the Science domain, I’d like to emphasise the work carried out by Elvira Fortunato, who is probably one of the most important women (actually, one of the most important people) in the Portuguese Scientific Community. The Portuguese scientist joined Barbie (a toy usually associated with girls) to promote the “Girls in Science powered by Barbie” programme, which ensured a full scholarship to a high school girl who wished to enrol in a higher education course in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (currently known as STEM). Now, should I belittle the work carried out by the men of Science? Absolutely not. I do wish to show that sex is an attribute that should not be considered when discussing the scientific qualities of people, and that in Science there are many examples of exceptional people who are not exclusively men. 

 We live in interesting times, and I believe that themes associated with diversity and inclusion will progressively be discussed in different forums. As a man of Science and, involuntarily, a member of a privileged group, it is up to me to contribute to making this Community more diverse and more inclusive. Could the debate, at a given moment, become polarized and, eventually, extreme? Yes, it could – especially considering the context in which we live. However, and regarding the scientific community, it’s vital to promote truly intellectual discussions that call on critical thinking. Mainly because I believe that everybody (or, at least, most people) aims to move towards a path of justice and equity, rather than unbridled segregation. If each and every one of us has a say in this matter, I truly hope to pay heed and intervene, in order to materialise this knowledge into concrete actions that support us, as a Community and a Society. 

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