10.03.2022 - Life science

Latvia sets an example on Women in Science

In 2020, there were 3,938 women and 3,781 men with PhDs in Latvia, according to the Central Statistical Office. The balance is almost perfect, but we need to try to get more people involved in science so that there are more women and more men in the field. This can be achieved by creating interest as early as possible: at school.

There were 6.3 million women scientists and engineers in the EU in 2019, according to Eurostat. This represents 41% of the total number of people employed in this field. In Latvia, the figure is 53%.

“In Latvia, women’s involvement in science has a positive track record. We are a good example for Europe,” says Brigita Daļecka, lead researcher at the Water Research and Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory of Riga Technical University.

She suggests that the high proportion of women in science is due to the fact that, historically, the profession, like teaching, has seemed better suited to women. In other words, it does not require physical strength. At the same time, pay has always been lower than in other sectors, and men prefer other professions where they can earn more.

More Women in Low-Wage Jobs

“If we look across Europe, Latvia has many more women than the European average. But it’s similar to other professions: where there are lower salaries, there are more women. In Europe, salaries for scientific and academic staff are higher, which is why there are more men,” says Agnese Stunda-Zujeva, a researcher at the Institute of General Chemical Technology at the Faculty of Materials Science and Applied Chemistry of Riga Technical University and co-founder of the biotechnology startup SpirulinaNord.

She adds that researchers who have received funding from the European Union or the Latvian Council of Science have quite good salaries and can earn good money if they focus on research. But how will such a system produce young and capable researchers? Stunda-Zujeva points out that academic staff also have to engage in research, where salary problems arise. For example, engineering studies involve a lot of laboratory work, so they cannot be taught in a group of 50 students. “The state budget money follows the student’s contact hours, not the lecturer’s work hours. So, if a group of 45 students is divided into three parts, each with its own lecturer, each is paid 1/3 of the total,” she explains.

Most in Medicine and Health Sciences

The highest share of women in scientific staff in Latvia is in medical and health sciences, 68%, according to the Ministry of Education and Science. This is followed by humanities and arts (64% of women), social sciences (62%), and agriculture and veterinary sciences (61%). However, the proportion of male scientific staff is consistently higher in engineering (65%) and natural sciences (54%).

“Looking at the statistics of the Ministry of Education and Science on the number of women and men in science, I think Latvia is almost an ideal country! 54% of men in science, means 46% of women, which is almost half! This ratio is closer to a balance than in the medical and health sciences, where the proportion of women is 68%,” says Head of the Information and Communication Unit at the Institute of Solid State Physics Dr. Phys. Līga Grīnberga.  

She does not think that there is a problem in Latvia with a scientist not being awarded a project or not being elected as head of a laboratory because she is a woman. Or that coffee should necessarily be served by a woman or that she should be paid less. At the same time, statistics show that there is a pay gap. “However, women, especially in the sciences, are not so eager to take high positions. Perhaps this is because the more senior you are in administration, the further you are from the real science,” says Grīnberga.

In the academic year 2020/21, 55% of academic positions in Latvian higher education institutions were held by women, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education and Science. 44% of universities and colleges are headed by women. Proportionally, the highest number of women is in the position of lecturer (67%), while the lowest number is in the position of professor (45%).

Only 603 Women Scientists Under 39

“There are only 603 female scientists with a Ph.D. under the age of 39 in Latvia. We are in dire need of the younger generation in science,” emphasizes Daļecka. There are 1209 women aged 40-54 and 1116 women aged 55-69 with PhDs. She believes that all efforts should be made to encourage the younger generation to enter science. To do this, the scientific-academic environment must be further improved, the prestige of the profession raised, salaries increased, the environment and infrastructure improved. And all this has to be done at the same time: just increasing salaries or buying new equipment will not do.

“The scientific profession must be loved. It has to be of interest. It cannot be done blindly just because it pays well. So, you have to think about how to provide an interesting working environment and give opportunities to develop oneself. And that has to start at school. That’s why I never say no when schools ask me to talk about the day-to-day life of a scientist,” says Daļecka.

Stunda-Zujeva also believes that an interest in science starts at school. She stresses that it is important not to give children all the information ready-made, but to let them experience the joy of discovery. “Then society will realize how much there is that is unknown, how exciting it is to learn and that being creative is not just about singing and dancing, but also about drawing, screwing, mixing substances and observing, for example, patterns in nature, emotions, politics and elsewhere,” says Stunda-Zujeva. She hopes that the new competencies model in education will change this and that children will see teachers not as a know-it-all, but as an ally on the path to learning new skills.

Inform and Inspire

“I have long reflected on the topic: why do we see gender equality so much in terms of numbers? And why is it that when gender equality is mentioned, it is automatically assumed that women are the ones who need to be ‘motivated’?” says Grīnberga.

In her view, women should be motivated and supported to take up managerial positions and to study stereotypically “unfeminine” professions such as physics or programming. Similarly, men should be motivated and supported if they choose to study stereotypically ‘unmanly’ professions, such as literary studies or to become a dental nurse.

“In general, Latvia should support and encourage the skills development of able students, whatever the field!” emphasises Grīnberga.

How to encourage it? By informing and inspiring. By showing, in a credible but “tasty” way, what the scientific environment is really like, what the daily work and events are like, what the opportunities and responsibilities are. Grīnberga believes that the L’Oreal for Women in Science fellowship is an excellent way to support women scientists, which also attracts media attention.

Demographic Policy Is Also Science Policy

Stunda-Zujeva believes that women are the backbone of every country’s demography.  Seeing what a country’s demographic policy is, it is clear what it thinks about women. “Women cannot do science or business while they are at home with their children and waiting in line for kindergarten. The SSIA offers a choice of parental leave, one or one and a half years, municipal co-financing for kindergarten or nannies is from the child’s age of one and a half. So, to get back into the labor market, even part-time, the nanny has to be financed 100% from the family budget. You can’t take your child to the lab, and you can’t write a scientific publication with children running around,” says Stunda-Zujeva.

With her third child, she was on parental leave for only eight months. “The National Agency for Educational Development said that the project should definitely end in summer 2023. Yes, I could have “sat” at home, but the project has to finish on time and the planned results have to be achieved. I have not experienced discrimination, but in this case, I could say that this is discrimination on the part of officials. It is easy to fall out of science, but difficult to get back in,” says Stunda-Zujeva.

She explains that in science, more than ten projects have to be written for one or two to get funding. This amount of work requires overtime, as writing projects do not really pay. Moreover, in Latvia, projects usually have to be submitted in September, so they have to be written while on holiday, as calls for proposals are only launched in early summer.

“The projects are judged on CVs and achievements. Childcare is not included, so with my CV and three children in nine years, I’m not very competitive. But if there are no projects, there is no money to do science. You can also work on colleagues’ projects on other topics,” says Stunda-Zujeva. This was one of the reasons why she turned her scientific work into a business. “I admire those who do science in Latvia. They are all workaholics. Of course, this reflects on the time devoted to family,” says Stunda-Zujeva.

Source: labsoflatvia.com

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