Gender Equality

Spanish professors are sexist

Spanish professors hold women back. The system is easier on men. Women have to do significantly more to reach the top.

This is the clear conclusion of the Spanish government’s White Paper on the Position of Women in Science in Spain. Men, the White Paper concludes, are 2.5 times more likely than otherwise identical women to become a Professor. (Libro Blanco: Situación de las Mujeres en la Ciencia Española)

When comparing men and women of the same age, with the same amount of time since their PhD, the same field of knowledge and recent academic production in terms of articles and books published, as well as dissertations or theses directed, we see that the probability of a male Associate Professor being promoted to Full Professor is 2.5 times higher than that of a woman with similar personal, family and professional characteristics.

Many countries have similar problems. In the United States, the National Science Foundation reaches the following conclusion.

Research has shown that women’s representation and advancement in academic STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) positions are affected by many external factors that are unrelated to their ability, interest, and technical skills, such as:

• Organizational constraints of academic institutions;
• Differential effects of work and family demands;
• Implicit and explicit bias; and
• Underrepresentation of women in academic leadership and decision­making positions.

The cumulative effect of such diverse factors has been to create barriers that impact the number of women entering and advancing in academic STEM careers.

While it’s no comfort to see that many countries share the challenges seen in Spain, it is inspiring to see the frank self-assessment offered in the White Paper, along with the passage of laws that will contribute to positive change.

In fact, the Spanish Parliament has imposed radical requirements on universities with its 2011 Law on Science, Technology and Innovation.

This law forces a number of changes. Committees for assessment must now be made up of equal numbers of men and women. Procedures for awarding grants must institute a variety of measures to eliminate bias.

And perhaps even more radically, publicly funded research projects are now required to incorporate a gender perspective in all areas, ranging from research problems to methods to applications.

The law will also require researchers to take specific measure to increase the numbers of women in research teams. Within two years of the passage of this law, all universities and other research organizations must have Equity Plans that include incentives for improvement. (Maybe they could test my Promotion Project?)

The Spanish Minister for Science and Innovation, Cristina Garmendia, must be proud of her Women and Science Unit, which worked on this law; it’s a remarkable accomplishment on behalf of science in Spain and beyond.

Why is this important?

Minister Garmendia claims that “a greater presence of women in the world of science and technology is essential for scientific excellence and also for the economic development of the country”.

The United States National Academy of Science and Engineering has noted that “a greater presence of women in the world of science and technology is essential for scientific excellence and also for the economic development of the country.”

The body of research showing the positive effects of gender balance in teams is growing as is research showing the importance of gendered perspectives in science; one important resource is the Gendered Innovations website. More such research is available through genSET.

Resources are being wasted in Spain and everywhere; women are in the majority of university graduates and their grades are better than those of their male colleagues. But they are underrepresented among those choosing research as a career — exactly the career in which the best brains are the most important resource. As the authors of the White Paper write, “The presence of women at the highest level in science is not proportional to the number of women who are qualified, of the correct age, and have the necessary merits and motivation for these posts.”

The problem may seem very complicated, but in fact, there are only three reasons women don’t make it to the top. We all believe that men and women should be promoted by the same criteria and that scientific communities should be unimpeded by structural problems in their quest to hire the best.

Spain has taken a leading position in Europe by acknowledging these goals, honestly assessing where it falls short, and then by passing laws to get beyond the sexism that currently exists. We’ll be watching the coming developments with great interest.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • esainsbury says:

    To be honest, this issue is by no means limited to Spanish professors; it is harder for women to reach the top in the majority of professions and whilst this issue may be aggravated further in Spain it is prevalent everywhere, and made all the more shameful that in civilised societies where we preach tolerance, fair treatment and lack of prejudice that we actually have an inherent flaw which means women are less likely to reach the higher levels of a profession.
    Hopefully, this issue will be tackled as people increasingly become aware of it and seek to tackle it directly.

    • curt rice says:

      I completely agree with this assessment. It was convenient to take up the Spanish case because of the newly released White Paper, but structural impediments are rampant, indeed.

  • Colin Phillips says:

    One unfortunate by-product of regulations like this is that it becomes even more difficult for senior women faculty to do the research and other activities that lead to career advancement. Senior women/minority faculty in US institutions end up facing an unreasonable administrative burden, because they are needed for every darn committee at the university. Unintended consequences.

    • curt rice says:

      That is an issue we face here in Tromsø, too. One strategy is to put “Teaching and admin” in one pot, so that some standardized version of time spent doing admin leads to a teaching reduction.

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