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Even in science, there are still too many obstacles for women

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Even in science, there are still too many obstacles for women

It is celebrated tomorrow, February 11th, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science promoted by the United Nations (here is the dedicated website) in 2015 not only to solicit their participation in the scientific enterprise but also to highlight their contribution which is too often neglected when not hidden. many events, in Italy as in the rest of the world, are organized for reel off embarrassing statistics that change at an imperceptible speed.

We will talk, as we have for decades now, about that limit beyond which it is not possible to continue, the so-called “glass ceiling” (glass ceiling), apparently invisible (glass), social and cultural barrier, which precludes women, who successfully crowd university classrooms, from accessing top positions in the academic career. Underdogs at the start and throughout the race, as in the numerous funny cartoons that see males and females at the starting blocks and all kinds of household goods in the girls’ lanes, often with very high steps. It is difficult to even reflect on other concepts, such as that of meritocracy or equal pay.

Embarrassing data

The data speak so clearly that they silence all imaginative and biased interpretations that attribute the gaps between the two sexes to individual tastes and preferences. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are female. In Italy, out of 136 thousand researchers, 47 thousand are women (around 34%). Other data released by the UN shows that, while women represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national scientific academies are women. In cutting-edge sectors such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman. Female researchers tend to have shorter and less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile magazines and they are often not considered for a position or promotion. Despite the skills shortage, and therefore the opportunities, in most of the technological sectors underlying the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still represent only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of IT and computer science graduates (the Italy is below this average).

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Genius of a woman

One of the problems for the younger ones is also made up of lack of models with which to identify or who, in any case, can normalize the presence of women at the top of a laboratory or research center. Also for this reason, we have collected the testimonies of five women from five different disciplines, in a series that we called “Genius of a woman. Female science” #geniofwoman. A clinical cardiologist-researcher who, having returned to Italy, continues to maintain a strong professional bond outside our borders; a mathematician, with a future already mapped out by her family in the country and who, with ability and commitment, is today the second woman to occupy the chair of pure mathematics at the MIT in Boston; a bioengineer from the Polytechnic of Milan and in the World‘s Top 2% Scientists from Stanford University, at the forefront of quality research in her country, so much so that she founded ERCinItaly; a Harvard neuroscientist who, having left Italy thanks to a postgraduate scholarship for a couple of years, has never returned and watches us from afar; an activist and digital entrepreneur who left Iran as a child and has never lost her international dimension. Different women, providing different suggestionsmore and less severe towards Italy, men and women, but all of you agree on reporting the major difficulties that a woman has to face. Their frank testimonies are, however, an invitation to tear up stereotypes and fight obstacles of various kinds, ranging from prejudices about their abilities to obstructionism and harassment, and which continue to penalize them even in areas such as research and intellectual work, where it would be natural to expect a different reality. It is not so.

The loss of the income and decision-making gap

The European strategy for gender equality 2020-2025 provides for the achievement of some main objectives which have all been touched by the protagonists of “Genio di Donna”: putting an end to gender violence, fighting sexist stereotypes, bridging the gender gap gender in the labor market, address the pay and pension gap, achieve gender balance in decision-making processes.

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Certain figures are necessary, such as the presence of women in the professions, but not sufficient to compose the picture. And so in medicine, just to give an example, where female graduates outnumber male graduates, women are lost over the years because while their colleagues climb the hierarchical ladder, they remain on the level. «The lack of doctors in top positions it is the result of a labyrinth, a tortuous series of visible and invisible barriers, determined by stereotypes and discrimination, including sexual harassment, power imbalance and privileges that prevent women from reaching the last higher level of leadership” are the words by Antonella Vezzani, president of the Italian Association of Women Doctors Aidm.

Good examples

There are some good examples and, here, they come from agencies that recruit through rigid international evaluation protocols with the peer review method, where all phases are rigorous. In Telethon Foundation, 679 researchers applied to the Telethon competitive calls in 2022 and 2023: 54% were women (364). Among these, 18% obtained financing, a figure similar to that of men (20%). Overall, 51% of the projects funded in the last 2 years are coordinated by a researcher. As regards the two Telethon structures, Tiget and Tigem, women are overall 59% and 74% respectively. Looking at the jobs held, project manager, research staff, administration, clinical staff, the data are these: 50%, 72%, 74% and 85% at Tiget; 30%, 66%, 42% and 100% at Tigem.

Of the 6 thousand Airc researchers active in 2023, 62% are female researchers. 249 researchers work at the Ifom Institute of Molecular Oncology of Airc, 134 of which are women, 54% of the total. In detail, 312 men and 224 women conduct an Investigator Grant; 60 male and female researchers hold a My First AIRC Grant; at the helm of the eight “5 per thousand” Special Programs, there are 6 men and two women. At the head of the seven Accelerator Awards, there are six men and one woman. Furthermore, 10 young researchers and 9 young researchers work with a Start-Up Grant; of the 5 Bridge Grants, one went to a female researcher and four to male researchers. Finally, 57 young researchers and 25 young researchers obtained a scholarship for Italy and 9 researchers and two researchers received a scholarship for abroad.

February 11th is also the day that Rai has chosen to broadcast “Women of Science” on the Rai Play digital platform. The work is a collection of six stories of women scientists who told their careers, including challenges and successes, without neglecting personal aspects and was screened in Brussels during the celebrations for the day. Among the scientists portrayed, there is also an Italian, Monica Gori, head of the Unit for Visually Impaired People (U-VIP) laboratory of the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. The Institute has 1881 people on staff, of which 43% are women (the numbers are here).

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Someone commented that, in order to be changed, certain situations require incisive interventions and recommendations or support for young researchers or aspiring researchers are not enough. If you have other ideas, write to us (here).

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