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Does science need more women?

Women and scientific careers: is there a glass ceiling?

Annalisa Plaitano, science communicator
On April 13th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Violetta Zujovic
Violetta Zujovic
researcher at INSERM and co-team leader at Institut du cerveau de Paris (ICM)
May Morris_photo
May Morris
CNRS Research Director at the Max Mousseron Institute of Biomolecules
Key takeaways
  • On 8th March 2021, a survey by the French Ministry of Education, aimed at identifying the origins of inequalities, made the following observation: girls are not weaker in science, but they are less likely to go into scientific fields.
  • In France, 52% of women and 42% of men graduated from higher education, but one year later women found it more difficult to find a job: 66% of women compared to 70% of men found employment.
  • In 2019, according to data from the French Ministry of Higher Education, only 25% of university professors, 30% of research directors and 37% of lecturers in France were women.
  • Subtle efforts such as the nudge, undertaken by the “Comité XX”, were able to change the percentage of women in the Scientific Steering Committee of INSERM, which is now composed of 50% women.

Let us begin with an obser­va­tion. Pub­lished on 8th March 2021, “Filles et garçons sur le chemin de l’é­gal­ité, de l’é­cole à l’en­seigne­ment supérieur” (Girls and boys on the road to equal­i­ty, from school to high­er edu­ca­tion) is the lat­est sta­tis­ti­cal report from the French Min­istry of Nation­al Edu­ca­tion, Youth and Sport. What has emerged from this sur­vey, which aims to iden­ti­fy the ori­gins of inequal­i­ties, is a con­fir­ma­tion of pre­vi­ous stud­ies on the dif­fer­ences in school per­for­mance between girls and boys at dif­fer­ent ages. The result: girls are as good as boys in sci­ence, but they are less like­ly to go into sci­ence careers.

Do girls prefer the humanities and social sciences?

First of all, for the youngest chil­dren, there is no dif­fer­ence – nei­ther in appetite nor in abil­i­ty – with regard to the sci­ences. In the report, there is a gen­er­al absence of remark­able dif­fer­ences at this age in rela­tion to sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines such as math­e­mat­ics1. In fact, at ages 6–7, 46% of girls com­pared to 48% of boys have a supe­ri­or com­mand of prob­lem solv­ing, while 61% of girls com­pared to 55% of boys have a supe­ri­or com­mand of lan­guage skills. From 10 years onwards, the advan­tage and inter­est of boys in maths increas­es slight­ly, until 14 years old. In 2019, girls scored an aver­age of 227 points and boys 236 points in the Cedre sur­vey2. But it can be argued that girls’ enthu­si­asm for maths is sim­i­lar to that of boys: 31% of girls and 35% of boys look for­ward to maths sessions.

In the gen­er­al series, 91% of girls obtain their diplo­ma against 84% of boys. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the voca­tion­al series, 76% of the girls obtained their diplo­ma com­pared to 71% of the boys. Accord­ing to the PISA sur­vey, in most Euro­pean coun­tries, girls have a clear advan­tage in read­ing com­pre­hen­sion. Indeed, it is between the end of low­er sec­ondary school and the begin­ning of upper sec­ondary school that the dif­fer­ences in ori­en­ta­tion start to take shape. Girls are more like­ly to go into human­i­ties and social stud­ies or the care pro­fes­sions (91%), where­as boys tend to go into tech­ni­cal-sci­en­tif­ic or indus­tri­al occu­pa­tions (two-thirds of boys choose these pro­fes­sion­al specialities).

At the end of sec­ondary edu­ca­tion, girls are on aver­age more like­ly to grad­u­ate in the sci­en­tif­ic stream (93% of girls com­pared with 90% of boys obtain the sci­en­tif­ic bac­calau­re­ate) and with bet­ter results; 35% of girls obtain a “good” or “very good” grade com­pared with 29% of boys. As in the case of ori­en­ta­tion after the brevet, at the end of the lycée (18 years old), the choice of high­er edu­ca­tion stud­ies also depends on gen­der and fol­lows the same trends. Tak­ing all sub­jects togeth­er, young women obtain more diplomas.

Fewer women in scientific careers

In France, 52% of women and 42% of men grad­u­ate from high­er edu­ca­tion, but one year lat­er women find it more dif­fi­cult to find a job: 66% of women find one com­pared to 70% of men. They are also paid less than men, with a salary dif­fer­ence of 15.8% in France. They also have few­er sta­ble jobs, such as man­age­r­i­al posi­tions: in France only 36.3% of man­agers are women3.

Then, as we move up the hier­ar­chy, there are few­er and few­er women: this is the famous “glass ceil­ing”. In 2019, accord­ing to data from the French Min­istry of High­er Edu­ca­tion, Research, and Inno­va­tion, only 25% of uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors, 30% of research direc­tors and 37% of lec­tur­ers in France were women4.

Fol­low­ing this obser­va­tion, the Femmes & Sci­ences asso­ci­a­tion (in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the CNRS Occ­i­tanie Ouest, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toulouse 3 – Paul Sabati­er and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toulouse 2 – Jean Jau­rès) car­ried out the “Mas­culin­i­ties and aca­d­e­m­ic careers – OMé­GARS” sur­vey. This study probed the per­cep­tions of male researchers in posi­tions of high respon­si­bil­i­ty regard­ing the careers of their female col­leagues. The results indi­cate that the glass ceil­ing phe­nom­e­non is under­es­ti­mat­ed, some­times denied, and that pos­si­ble solu­tions are some­how hin­dered5. Indeed, most of the inter­vie­wees (research direc­tors and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors) acknowl­edged the prob­lem but attrib­uted the cause to the insuf­fi­cient female pool con­clud­ing that there are few women in high posi­tions sim­ply because there are few women at all. All inter­vie­wees were opposed to quo­tas and to the require­ment of par­i­ty of juries in com­mit­tees as a solution.

Increasing the presence of women through the nudge

With the aim of increas­ing the pres­ence of women in the upper ech­e­lons of sci­ence, Vio­let­ta Zujovic, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at INSERM, co-found­ed the “Comité XX” scheme. “The ini­tia­tive was born fol­low­ing a remark by the ICM’s Inter­na­tion­al Sci­en­tif­ic Coun­cil dur­ing an inter­nal eval­u­a­tion. We were alert­ed to the under-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in the man­age­ment com­mit­tee,” she explains. First, the com­mit­tee took stock of the sit­u­a­tion: in 2017, 63% of the institute’s mem­bers were women, but only 26% held a man­age­ment posi­tion and 25% were invit­ed to speak at inter­nal sem­i­nars6.

“We asked our­selves how we could use neu­ro­science knowl­edge, our exper­tise, to change this sit­u­a­tion. Based on these reflec­tions, we set up var­i­ous ini­tia­tives based on cog­ni­tive bias­es.” The com­mit­tee then put in place sub­tle efforts (the ‘nudge’), for exam­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the mon­i­tor­ing of gen­der equal­i­ty indi­ca­tors with­in the insti­tute, organ­i­sa­tion of meet­ings on gen­der bias, prac­ti­cal work­shops, and train­ing for female and male stu­dents. The results show that these efforts have been able to change the per­cent­age of women in the INSERM sci­en­tif­ic steer­ing com­mit­tee: today, 50% of the com­mit­tee is com­posed of women. Also, in the ICM’s Inter­na­tion­al Sci­en­tif­ic Coun­cil, 6 out of 11 peo­ple are women today, where­as before there was only one. “In addi­tion, we have man­aged to achieve bet­ter results in rela­tion to the Gen­der Equal­i­ty Index, a gov­ern­ment mea­sure based on sev­er­al para­me­ters, includ­ing the pay gap and the gap in the rate of increase and pro­mo­tion between men and women. We have gone from 75 out of 100 to 91 out of 100.”

Support through mentoring

May Mor­ris, a bio­chemist at the Max Mousseron Insti­tute of Bio­mol­e­cules, over­sees the Women & Sci­ence men­tor­ing scheme for female PhD stu­dents. Found­ed in Mont­pel­li­er in 2015, the scheme con­nects an expe­ri­enced aca­d­e­m­ic pro­fes­sion­al (with at least a PhD) with a female stu­dent wish­ing to be mon­i­tored, guid­ed, and sup­port­ed. “The men­tor­ing scheme allows the exchange of expe­ri­ences and the pro­vi­sion of use­ful advice for the pur­suit of a sci­en­tif­ic career, but also to answer indi­vid­ual ques­tions that young women may have, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to man­ag­ing of their per­son­al life and their pro­fes­sion­al project.”

The scheme also helps doc­tor­al stu­dents to set goals, to bet­ter under­stand and devel­op their skills, and to guide them in their intro­duc­tion into pro­fes­sion­al net­works. Men­tor­ing takes place over a 12-month peri­od in a spir­it of car­ing, com­bin­ing month­ly meet­ings between a men­tor and a female doc­tor­al stu­dent, with group meet­ings, train­ing, and tes­ti­monies from women scientists.

“We have been eval­u­at­ing the project since 2015 and fol­low­ing the careers of the female PhD stu­dents who have ben­e­fit­ed from the pro­gramme. We have seen a bet­ter con­struc­tion of career plans and a sat­is­fac­to­ry pro­fes­sion­al inte­gra­tion after the the­sis. The doc­tor­al stu­dents have also learned to gain more self-con­fi­dence, to express their needs and to define their objec­tives. The pro­gramme also enabled them to bet­ter man­age prob­lems in dif­fi­cult situations.”


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