10.08.2023 - Biomedicine, Biotechnology

51% of Latvian scientists are women

In 2021, Europe was home to 6.9 million female scientists and engineers — women made up 41% of the total number of scientists and engineers. Latvia stands out against this background in a positive way, as 51% of scientists here are women.

Labs of Latvia presents a series of articles on women in science. In this article, we explore statistics on how many women work in science in Latvia and how we can explain this high proportion. Meanwhile, later articles will look at how many inventors Latvia has, the situation in Latvia around those with PhDs, and the role played by popularising science.

Many women in science: the sign of a modern country

Portugal fares just as well, while only Lithuania and Bulgaria fare better, with 52% of scientists being women, reveals data from Eurostat.

“Gender equality issues are incredibly relevant in today’s world, and the fact that Latvia is among the world’s leaders in various statistics on female involvement in science and business gives us additional benefits when approaching investors and business partners. It is the sign of a modern country which allows balanced development, as both genders play a full role in decision making,” emphasises Kaspars Rožkalns, director of the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia.

When asked for a reason why Latvia has such a high proportion of female scientists in a European context, Latvian Science Council (LSC) director Lauma Muižniece explains that this would require more in-depth sociological research. “The LSC believes that the Latvian scientific environment is not discriminatory towards women: if a woman’s mission is within science, she can achieve it,” she concludes.

Jānis Paiders, head of the Higher Education, Science and Innovation Department at the Ministry of Education and Science, adds that the high proportion of female scientists confirms that women in Latvia have extremely good opportunities for getting involved in science. “We don’t have institutional barriers preventing women from entering this profession. This is also shown by the proportion of female scientists in Latvia compared with other European countries — it is at a very high level,” he explains. This figure also reflects the Latvian higher education structure, in which around 56% of students and 65% of all graduates are women. Paiders also adds that female involvement in science in Latvia over the past decade is unchangingly high.

Ella Pētermane, PR specialist at the Development and International Cooperation Department of the Patent Office, explains that the large proportion of female scientists in Latvia, one of the highest in the world, is not a recent phenomenon — this position has been maintained for at least 10 years. However, she doubts Latvia’s ability to maintain this position going forward, as the proportion of new female scientists is diminishing. There are only 603 female scientists aged up to 39, reports Labs of Latvia.

Reasons vary and are not fully clear

Antra Boča, head of the Association of Latvian Young Scientists, explains that we do not have a comprehensive understanding of the reasons behind the current situation. “We have not implemented any special initiatives or conducted any research on a state, local authority or institutional level or within the overall education system. We will have to see whether the new PhD model of a guaranteed wage for doctoral students encourages more men to study for a PhD,” she adds.

Boča views this positive statistic in two lights. On one hand, women in Latvia are better educated. For example, in 2022, 60% of those with a Master’s degree in Latvia were women. It is therefore logical that more women than men begin and graduate from doctoral programmes. “It looks as though women in Latvia have no barriers to being accepted into a doctoral programme, which is very good,” she states.

On the other hand, Boča assumes that financing instability in science, as well as poorly-paid academic work, that is, for lecturer positions, which must often be undertaken in parallel with research, makes working in science not particularly attractive for men, who are less willing to make sacrifices for an idea. She therefore has an unresolved question: is the openness of science towards women truly a positive cultural marker, or is it linked to the fact that there is a lack of scientists, with project leaders having nobody else to choose from when selecting doctoral students? Furthermore, up until now, PhD programmes have almost been a hobby or unpaid work, which therefore means that project leaders are not required to consider risks such as maternity leave.

“When money enters the equation, particularly project funding, the situation may no longer be as bright. But this is the worst case scenario. Only time will tell whether, for example, the new PhD model will change the gender proportions among doctoral graduates,” concludes Boča.

No barriers for female scientists in Latvia

Dagnija Loča, leading researcher at the Riga Technical University (RTU) Institute of General Chemical Engineering, director of the RTU Rūdolfs Cimdiņš Riga Biomaterials Innovation and Development Centre and professor at the Latvian Academy of Sciences, believes that Latvia is a good environment for women to learn and gain a degree. “I grew up in a time when Latvia was regaining independence. My parents saw how complex the situation was at the time and encouraged me to study. The opportunity to study abroad also opened up at that time, and young people my age understood how crucial the English language was. Another important aspect is a personal drive to be in constant movement and achieve more, rather than staying in one place,” she explains.

The professor studied materials science at the RTU Faculty of Chemistry, and the course had slightly more men than women. However, more of the women chose a career in science. Loča assumes that this is linked with the fact that, when starting a family, men find it more important to be the breadwinner and earn a good wage. Although a researcher is an expert in their field and operates within the best group for them, money is low. I assume that, in my course, parents were able to support their daughters, and that’s how we could afford to advance our careers in science,” surmises Loča.

The institute she leads collaborates with international partners, so the professor has an idea of the situation in other countries. Loča has noticed that, in many countries, such as France or Germany, women find it fairly difficult to climb the career ladder and ascend to higher roles. “Young women see that their experienced female colleagues are unable to advance, and so they also lose the motivation to try,” explains Loča. She presumes that there are also fields in Latvia where the situation is similar, but has the impression that the glass ceiling here is “thinner.” “At RTU, I have never felt smothered or limited. If I have a desire and an idea, nobody will stop me,” says Loča.

When looking at the involvement of women in science, Paiders emphasises two problems. First, the overall balance of women is high, but this is not evenly spread out among different fields. There is a particularly high proportion of women in many social and humanities sciences, but this figure is low in engineering. Second, there are no barriers to women finding jobs in science in Latvia. However, when talking about career advancement, there may be institutional obstacles. “Therefore, as the academic job category increases in importance, the proportion of women decreases. For example, the highest proportion is among research assistants, while the smallest is among leading researchers,” adds Paiders.

Success figures are even

In the LSC’s Fundamental and Applied Research project call, to which scientists from Latvian universities and institutions submitted around 600 projects over the past two years,  40.4% of project leaders and research group leaders in 2021 and 41.5% in 2022 were women. In both years, the most applications made by female-led groups were in the social sciences (63% in 2021) and humanities and arts research (68% in 2021). Male-led project proposals in 2021 were in the majority in the natural sciences and in engineering and technology, where female-led groups in both categories made up 27% of applications.

The situation differs year-on-year in medicine and health sciences, as well as in agricultural, forestry and veterinary sciences. For example, if one year saw an equal number of projects submitted by project leaders of each gender, or if one gender dominated, the situation was reversed the next year. However, the proportion of projects submitted by one gender never fell below 40%.

Post-doctoral programmes are balanced. Of 344 research applications, 168 were submitted by women. Meanwhile, of 143 applications for projects developing new technologies or products, 74 were authored by women.

The LSC’s Fundamental and Applied Research project call’s success rate is the number of projects receiving financing compared with total applications. The success rate for 2021 was 13.3%, and in 2022 it was 10.1%. Financing is only awarded to the highest-rated projects.

“In both years, success figures for project managers of each gender were almost even,” explains Muižniece.

In 2021, women leaders were significantly more successful in medicine and health sciences and equally as successful as men in natural sciences. Meanwhile, in the 2022 call, parity between the genders was observed in the natural sciences, humanities and arts, as well as in agricultural, forestry and veterinary sciences. There was a slightly higher success rate for women in the social sciences. The fact that the situation in each field differs between the two years shows, according to the LSC, that success is based on the experience, talent and work of each individual scientist and their colleagues, rather than gender.

Author: Anda Asere (www.labsoflatvia.com)
Photo: Shutterstock

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