Back in 2013 I was still living in Canada when the European Commission launched the “Science: it’s a girl thing” campaign. At this time I had just finished my research in Neuroscience as part of my work to get my Masters in Human Development. This was a difficult time for me as I was struggling to carry out my research work with the little resources, so when I saw the “Science: it’s a girl thing” campaign it bought out mixed emotions in me. Also the images in the campaign were stereo typically over feminised; with not a single image of a women actually carrying out any scientific procedures or showing any real portrayal of life as a scientist, and neither did it portray the message that that science is really for everyone. All this left me with the feeling that the campaign gave no particular hope for the inclusion of women in science and neither did it help me feel more hopeful about my own future in Science.
Two years have passed since 2013, I am now back in my home country of Portugal where I am a Neuroscience PhD candidate, a research fellow at Bial Foundation and a resident researcher at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. Despite all these developments I still struggle.
According to a report from the European Parliamentary Research Service (http://epthinktank.eu/2015/03/04/women-and-education-in-the-eu/) women have more tendencies to abandon the pursuit of studying at PhD level than men, and this is reflected in the smaller numbers of female scientists working across Europe (Graph above). This comes as no surprise to me, as I understand why given a choice of an easier path in other careers, women would leave science well alone, especially since it’s even harder for women to reach the top level research positions. An interesting fact from the report is that Portugal and Greece have a higher percentage of women (21%) in the top grade of university staff compared with the European average of 15%. As a result these countries aren’t considered by political leaders as problematic in the issue of the number of women within science. This of course is a fallacy, there are lots of problems in this area, one of which being the decreases in funding for research. As the report points out; countries with low levels of research and development expenditure have the highest proportion of women in research, whilst countries with the highest research and development expenditure have the lowest proportion of female researchers. This evidence points to how women scientists are underrepresented within well-funded research areas and suggests that there is a biased towards men for these roles.
Adding to these problems is the consistent reduction of funding over the years, with Portugal specifically being penalised in the major European funding programmes. This has created an economic divide on European science, Colin Macilwain describes in his article in Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/economic-divide-taking-toll-on-european-science-1.16659?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews) that the Horizon 2020 funding programme will only serve to finance countries which already have strong research capacity. This leaves scientists from southern Europe out in the cold and stretched for resources. The researchers public image also doesn’t help, the misconceptions around a scientist’s life abound, the idea that researchers are paid by their research institutes, that good research always gets funding and that researchers are paid to publish in scientific journals are only some of the false ideas that scientists have to contend with.
And this is where I am; a woman scientist doing research in Portugal, in a country with a high proportion of women in science, but with a small job market for research, which has a high prevalence towards state-owned research institutions that are too dependent on funding from European institutions.
As a PhD candidate in Neuroscience I applied to a scholarship from the Portuguese government so I could complete my PhD and fully dedicate to my research which focuses on the neurocorrelates of intention and cognitive executive functions. I look at the brain activity related with intention and its eventual impact on the performance of participants in problem solving and attention focused tasks with the help of a Brain-Computer Interface. I was denied the scholarship, but I was fortunate to receive a grant from Bial Foundation, though it has now become clear to me that this is not enough, as this grant has to be used to acquire laboratory material such as EEG brain activity recording apparatus that is extremely expensive. With no other source of income, and given that doing laboratory research is incompatible with a full time job, looking for a part-time job has become my focus. In a struggling economy in a country that has no tradition of a flexible and dynamic job market, this is a daunting task.
I have been looking for and sending applications for part-time jobs for months, with no success. For the next 12 months, the amount of my grant (my only financial resource) is €13,500, though my expected expenses in the next 12 months for laboratory apparatus and materials comes to €12, 390 and living expenses for the basics of rent, public transportation (not including food or other items) comes to €4,680. In total my complete expenditure will come to €17,070.
These unworkable figures are the reason that while I send out yet another batch of CV’s to the small number of part-time jobs available, I am simultaneously considering all the other options at my disposal, planning a crowd funding campaign, looking at alternative sources of income and funding and even seriously considering an application to work with the cleaning lady that comes to my friend’s house every week. The pay is better and the hours are more flexible than I currently have as a woman research scientist in Portugal.
With the drive to encourage more women to enter the field of science is this really a desirable future for them?