international analysis and commentary

The female voice in science, a conversation with Cristina Alberini

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A diverse mix of minds creates a larger array of ideas. This is a given. So why are there so few women in science labs – the very place where a wide range of minds, and therefore results, is needed most? We talked with Cristina Alberini, Professor at the Center for Neural Science at New York University and expert on the biological mechanisms of long-term memory, about the gender challenge in science.

Dr. Alberini, you were invited to discuss “Women, Science and Sustainable Development” at The Aspen Forum at Expo, which took place in early July 2015 in Milan. Could you tell us why the role and contribution of female scientists to sustainable development is key to resolving economic, social and environmental problems?

Let me start by saying that I was so glad to see this event focused on Women, Science and Sustainable Development at the Expo in Milan. There is a great need for attention and concrete action regarding the issue of women still being limited in, and sometimes excluded from giving their contributions to sustainable development. Ultimately, this changes society. Women can contribute in a different way to the development, progress and changes in a society. We, women, perceive problems differently, and solve them through different strategies. Thus far, the rules have been – and mostly continue to be – made by men, who use different approaches. Men’s approaches are more rapid-action-oriented, whereas women’s approaches are more based on integration of analytic, sequential and intuitive processes. Women are more inclined to engage in teamwork. Women more successfully take care of issues. Women currently still adjust to a men’s way of working, leaving aside their strengths, which are actually very important resources for society. We should ask the question: is a man’s way (of course I am generalizing now) of building societies the best way? Or are there different ways that can help make our working environments, productivity and ultimately the development of our societies better and more adaptive? Women, with their greater sense of others, more empathy and expanded social interactions, different emotional perceptions and processing can, if given more opportunities to express themselves through work, change economic and social aspects of society. The world of female scientists is an example of under-representation, biases and limitations. But women in science are truly a precious resource. We do have outstanding role models and inspiring women, but we need to do much more – giving women the freedom to express their visions, to accomplish their goals.

Unfortunately, the number of women in the fields of science and technology is alarmingly low in the world’s leading economies, and even in decline in some – including the US (and even lower in less affluent countries). From your experience, as a woman who has done well in the field of science, what is the reason behind this especially considering that the number of women studying science and technology has increased over the years?

True. The number of female scientists that continue a career in science after training is incredibly low, and the situation in Italy is particularly alarming, where women extremely rarely can reach leading or independent positions. There are many reasons for this and a lot has been written about it. General impediments are the high demands and pressure that accompany this career, as well as a lack of consideration and support for family issues. Women are generally more involved and spend more time caring for the needs of the family. If they decide to start a family they are scared by the high demands of scientific careers. I have had several women in my lab expressing doubts and fears about whether they could be successful. And I know they could be VERY successful. Thus, the lower self-confidence compared to men and the really high demands of this type of work, which would impact family life, lead many women to withdraw after their training from the idea of a science career and to accept non-leading positions or drift to different types of jobs. In Italy, we have additional, specific problems: lack of clarity in rules and plans for such a career, lack of policies, lack of transparency in hiring, promoting and distributing funding and resources. There is some Memorandum of Understanding on gender equality in the research profession between the Ministry of Education, universities and research and the Ministry for Equal Opportunities, but very little or no action yet. Women need to be included in leading and decision-making positions and this has not happened yet.

Could you talk to us about what can be done to reverse this trend and what advice you would give to young women who aspire to enter into the field?

The first advice to young women is to not fear. The second is to have goals in mind and to change the system. Small changes, step by step are necessary to lead to big changes. Changing is always a long and difficult process, we know. Third, is to work on their self-confidence and find mentors and support that can help them get where they want to be. And speaking of this, to address the question of what could be done, I hope that the committees and those who have the decision power will implement changes and include women and women’s ideas in research and development.

In a paper you wrote for Aspen Italia on how to strengthen the contribution of women, you point out that the number of female researchers hired in Italy is low compared to European levels, yet the number of female produced publications in the field is high. Why is this?

Yes, that is what the data report and I believe they prove the strength of the motivation, determination and passion of Italian women in science. I hope that this will be recognized, emphasized and supported. Otherwise, the community and society will miss a great contribution by Italian women

In the paper, you also discuss the discovery of “unconscious biases”. Could you talk to us about the importance of this “discovery”?

After it was accepted that there were biases against women, (just to mention one, for the same job they are often payed less than men) things have been in part been corrected, and measures have been introduced to avoid discrimination. After these obvious problems were admitted and are being corrected it surfaced that women are still looked upon differently. Studies showed that there are unconscious biases in both men and women in considerations towards women, and that leads to men being favored by men when it comes to careers and jobs that have been generally dominated by men. I want to underline that no intelligent man considers a woman less “capable” or less “intelligent”. But it is how society is used to “perceiving” that men are “better” in many ways that leads to certain decisions. It is what we all have learned, because we see more men than women in leading positions and jobs. This needs a shift in education, which will teach all, and especially the new generations, a different picture; families and school in addition to role models should change these biases.

During The Aspen Forum at Expo you talked about how research, development and technology need to be seen from a global viewpoint. Why is this and how do women fit into the picture?

Yes. I believe that this is a very important and timely issue. We live in a global world and condition: economy, environment, services, energy, food, health – everything is global. We need to work in research, science and technology for a global and in a global setting. Global questions are not those of single countries and we need to add them to research and development. Global issues are urgent and are the future. Additionally, we need to have international agencies that support global research.