“To break the glass ceiling, we need to change the foundations.”

Science owes women a lot. Even though more and more policies are targeting equality and inclusion, there’s still a long way to go. CaixaForum Madrid recently organised an event for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, so we took the opportunity to chat with two of the participants. 

Isabel Dorado, from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid is working to predict the impact of climate change on forests and she does this with the support of a Junior Leader postdoc grant (2018). Helena Domínguez is an archaeologist and was awarded a postgrad grant in North America from “la Caixa” for her research stay at the University of Pennsylvania (2014). She is currently an adjunct professor of Ancient History at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos and she is doing her PhD at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. They both talked about their personal experience in a sphere where women are particularly scarce: fieldwork.  Furthermore, Debra Joy Pérez, an expert in policies that promote integrating different collectives in scientific research, shares her vision for the future of women and science. 


Has being a woman hindered your scientific career? 

ISABEL: The field I am studying, forestry ecology, is dominated by foresters, who are usually men. The fieldwork is tough. For many years at the start of my career, they didn’t let me take part, and I was only allowed to take notes. They didn’t let me do the physical work. However, as your career progresses, you can fight for things to change. Now I organise my own campaigns. I am no longer working under a boss who decides whether or not I can take samples. It’s true that more and more women are leading these campaigns. However, these situations that happen when you start out, when you’re younger, I don’t think that’s changed too much.      

HELENA: The same thing happened to me during digs. It’s not as romantic as the Indiana Jones movies. When you have to do physical work, like removing earth and getting dirt under your nails, there’s a certain objection to a woman doing it. At least, that’s what happened when I was studying. 

ISABEL: I’m surprised that the gender roles are still so marked: women collecting leaves for genetic analysis and men drilling into trees.  

Can the glass ceiling be broken over time or do we need more effective gender equality policies?  

ISABEL: I think that, so far, the measures taken have been fundamentally cosmetic to distract us from deep-rooted discrimination. It’s just not enough. To promote a change that will allow women to work in positions of responsibility under equal conditions, it isn’t enough to renovate the facade, you have to tear the building down and rebuild it. To break the glass ceiling, we need to change the foundations. 

HELENA: From the public field, legally both genders have the same rights, it’s true, but there’s plenty of cronyism. And in the private sector, I agree with what you say. We really do need better legislation there. 

Can you think of a practice or policy that could be implemented and that nobody has come up with yet? 

ISABEL: There are many things that could be done. For example, something I suggested at my university involved giving compulsory courses on equality and integration for teacher researchers. It is the only way to begin breaking this involuntary bias found among many researchers. I know it’s a controversial measure because, in one way or another, it seems that you’re trying to lecture them like children, but you have to force the issue a bit. And maybe this could accelerate the process. From there, we must move forward a little. The quotas system is all very well, it has worked for some time but we can’t mask the situation by saying “Well, as we are required to have 40% women and we meet this, that’s it then, there is no discrimination.” Stricter measures should be adopted, more based on merit and less based on nepotism, which is what usually happens.  

HELENA: Furthermore, work-life balance measures should continue. It should reach parity, real equality. This would dismantle the companies’ pretext for employing men based on productivity. In education, I believe that practices should be implemented way before university. This should start in childhood. 

What valuable advice do you have for girls who want to go into science?  

ISABEL: A little while ago I took some advice, and it worked for me. A female researcher, who had had to fight to get to her position, told me that I shouldn’t trust just one person blindly. At any given moment, they might fall for the gender bias and let you down. She told me that I should develop my own resources and rely on them. If you set up your own contact network, you weave your own support network, that’s something you can count on. 

HELENA. If a girl wants to go into science, the first thing to tell her is that she should study whatever she wants. I had a lot of (senior secondary school) teachers who told me to do sciences because it’d be better for me in the end. But I liked archaeology, and, in the end, I found some openings. On the other hand, sometimes - and this happens a lot in Spain - we tend to undervalue ourselves. If you don’t value what you’re doing, give yourself the credit you deserve, nobody’s going to do it for you. You need to know what you’re worth.  


Recognising the value of people is precisely what Debra Joy Pérez sets out to do in her work. She is senior vice-president of Organisational Culture, Inclusion and Fairness at Simmons University and expert in policies for active integration of collectives that have been historically discriminated against within scientific research. We asked her about the most important challenges facing the community when incorporating fairness into the gender issue. 

How can we make science more accessible to women? 

This is not just about getting into science; the whole science culture needs to change, that is something much broader. We know that laboratories remain predominantly male. There’s a long way to go culturally. There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that gender-balanced teams improve science. In fact, you cannot say that your research is excellent if all the voices are not represented round the table.  

Diversity is a value in itself.

These different voices should also be represented at all stages of the research: when designing the experiments, in implementation, in analysis and in interpreting results. The innovation, leadership, creativity... all this comes from fairness. With no fairness, it is impossible for research to attain excellence. 

Are we doing enough to achieve this fairness?

Many organisations are supporting girls who want to go into science. The best we can do is encourage them, inspire them, so that they do experiments at home, so that they wonder about the world around them... anything might do the trick. Because these girls are and will be the future.


This article was initially published in Catalan and Spanish on the blog CaixaCiencia.