Q&A: ‘I imagine diversity as the central axis’ in research

By Aleida Rueda [MEXICO CITY] The percentage of female researchers in Latin America is among...

By Aleida Rueda

[MEXICO CITY] The percentage of female researchers in Latin America is among the highest in the world. It has reached 44 per cent, compared with the global average of 28 per cent. However, a gender gap persists, standing in the way of women scientists having the same opportunities and recognition as their male colleagues.

This continuing gap, and the importance of including the gender dimension in research and funding, are among the key topics in this interview Julia Tagüeña, deputy director of scientific development at Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), ahead of the Gender Summit due to take place in London this month.

Discussions at past Gender Summits have maintained that science is not neutral, and that it is necessary to move towards a paradigm where science is sensitive to the gender dimension. How do you imagine this new paradigm taking shape in the Latin American region?

I am increasingly convinced that it is necessary to include gender sensitivity in research anywhere in the world. And I imagine a paradigm that includes more inclusions — that is, that includes diversity as the central axis — because the evidence tells us that diverse groups do better research. When you have a broader view of research, you do better science. An example is heart attacks in women. As the symptomatology is different for men and women, and given that the most well-known symptomatology is that of men, women do not recognise it when they are having a heart attack and do not go to the hospital on time. Another example is the safety belts that were initially designed from male prototypes, and later companies realised that they did not work properly in women because they simply have a different anatomy. So if we have a paradigm in which research and technology takes into account and addresses these differences, we will be enriching people’s lives.

In Mexico, through CONACYT, we have taken actions, on the one hand, of gender equality and, on the other, of incorporating gender analysis in research,

Julia Tagüeña

In addition to improving quality of life, can the gender dimension in research promote development?

Making better science helps in many ways, including the development of our countries. If we talk about economic growth, for example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that if women participate in the economy under the same conditions to those of men, by 2025 they would add 26 per cent to the annual global GDP (gross domestic product), which is equivalent to that of the economies of the United States and China combined. And one of the regions with the greatest impacts would be Latin America. On the other hand, the importance of women in reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations has already been discussed. In many places, women play an essential role in making decisions that have to do with sustainability, such as housekeeping or parenting.

How, and from whom, should the investment come from to strengthen the number and relevance of women in STEM research?

I believe that the way to promote the gender dimension as part of research is through the funding agencies. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, for example, it is already mandatory that all medical experiments be done on the same number of men and women. And if they [researchers] do not do it, they are not given financing. In Mexico, through CONACYT, we have taken actions on gender equality, on the one hand, and on the other, on incorporating gender analysis in research. We have specific calls for indigenous women, we offer extensions to researchers when they get pregnant, and we increase the age limit for women who participate in competitions to occupy places in research centers or to win prizes [because they may have spent time away from work for family duties]. But I think the initial investment must come from public education, to motivate girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Do you see significant differences between conditions in Latin America and globally?

What we know from UNESCO statistics is that Latin America is one of the regions with the highest number of women scientists, and that in the face of the social problems of our region, educated women have more opportunities than men who are not educated [at the same level]. The problem is that in most countries, women do not manage to reach leadership positions or decision-making roles as often as men do. The wage gap and the difficulty in combining parenting with academic life continue being challenges. But I also see that it is a generational issue, and that more and more young women are occupying those positions of leadership. We will see a progressive change.

This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean desk.


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