It is believed that solving gender discrimination alone can increase its economic growth by a third. The same is true of science: unlocking the full potential of women would enable greater breakthroughs in science and innovation, which benefits everyone.
According to Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, and Youth, female scientists are already changing the world significantly. “It is women who are the pioneers of dark matter research, contribute to the progress of biomedical science, make discoveries in the field of neuropsychology, and lead international centers of research excellence. In Europe’s academic world, we have almost attained gender equality in terms of doctoral graduates, and Lithuania is one of the leaders here, with women comprising 58% of all doctoral graduates,” said the Commissioner in her remarks at a conference on women empowerment.
30% of Lithuanian universities led by women
Despite Lithuania’s leading position in Europe regarding women in science, the senior academic and scientific research positions are more often held by men. The income of female doctoral graduates in 2020 was 25% lower than that of men with the same academic qualification.
According to Dr. Agnė Paliokaitė from the Lyderė association, the inequality between men and women does not resolve over time. Although women lead as many as 30% of Lithuanian universities today, this has not come anywhere close to equal representation as yet. On the European scale, men won more financial grants than women during the last hundred years, and the ratio between scientific discoveries by women and men was 1 to 9.
“It has been estimated that if we leave the gender gap unattended, it will take another 99 years to close. Seeking to address these issues, the European Commission has therefore implemented targeted measures to promote gender equality in science in the form of mandatory requirements for institutions seeking to secure EU funding,” says Dr. Paliokaitė.
The wall of motherhood is still the most prevalent stereotype
Research shows that one significant factor contributing to gender inequality in science is stereotype-based biases and situations.
By conducting a representative study on women empowerment in higher education, which involved interviews with some 900 scholars, Dr. Aurelija Novelskaitė, Associate Professor at Vilnius University, and Dr. Paliokaitė, Board Member at the Lyderė association, sought to identify the critical problem areas in Lithuanian scientific and higher education institutions that are directly related to women empowerment and highlight the challenges and stereotypes women face when seeking a career in them.
Their analysis has shown that stereotype-based biases, attitudes, situations, and beliefs are pretty widespread in Lithuania’s scientific and higher education institutions, with natural sciences, medical and health sciences, technologies, and agricultural sciences faring less well than the rest in this respect.
“The biggest challenge female scientists face is the so-called ‘wall of motherhood,’ i.e., the belief that after becoming a mother, the woman loses some of her professional competencies and motivation to perform at work. This stereotype is also faced even by women who do not have children or never intend to become mothers. This is not the only stereotype out there. Still, the point is that all of them lead to biases, which are understood as the basis for unequal opportunities and a blow to meritocracy,’ says Dr. Paliokaitė.
The study has shown that 40% of survey participants have experienced this particular stereotype-based bias at least once in the last few years. More than half of the survey participants believe that not having family commitments helps further women’s careers.
Most with leadership abilities yet not aiming to lead
Associate Professor Aurelija Novelskaitė, who has conducted another study on the topic, has some positive news to share: According to her survey participants, the practices that promote gender equality appear to be more prevalent in the country’s scientific and higher education institutions than those where gender equality is lacking. “For instance, as many as 58% of survey participants think that the way they feel about their institution would not change depending on whether a male or a female leads it. However, almost half of respondents would not know where to reach out if faced with gender inequality in their institution, with a third admitting that their workplaces lack an effective policy on gender equality,” she said.
The scientific study shows that while the majority of the surveyed women have leadership abilities, experience, and skills, only 10% of them are interested in pursuing leadership roles. This limited interest in leadership roles, combined with lower self-esteem, means that the leadership potential of women is wasted. This may be related to the lack of support and encouragement and the widespread stereotypes that more inferior women’s self-esteem, such as the notion that science is a “masculine” field, where highly-competent, ambitious, and determined women are seen as “masculine” and therefore perceived less favorably in the workplace.
Changing outlook as the first step
In response to the question of what higher education institutions could do to effectively promote equal opportunities in a discussion between the leaders of Lithuania’s higher education institutions, Vilnius University Rector Prof. Rimvydas Petrauskas said that what matters is not only the measures one uses but also the issue of outlook and awareness.
“When it comes to higher education, I would like to draw attention to the fact that people care about more than just a career because they join the academia not only to become professors. This is also about the entire community, environment, communication, self-expression, and the sense of self-worth. These are the most sensitive areas, and, as studies show, not all is well there, and it is important for the institution to admit it. Many stereotype-based views come from one’s school days, and changing attitudes is never easy, but the main solution here is talking about this openly,’ says Prof. Petrauskas.
According to him, another critical issue is the measures we implement to ensure gender equality. The VU Diversity and Equal Opportunity Strategy, with the Gender Equality Plan based on it, was subject to a long debate, and it was not so easy to reach an agreement on it. In addition, there are plans to extend the list of specific measures to both make women feel more welcome and improve their career opportunities in science. These could take the form of sensibly adapted qualification requirements for female scientists who gave birth or are raising children and more flexible schedules for the first year after returning from maternity leave.
Speaking at the conference, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė encouraged women not to buy into the lie that they only have a helping role in society and wished for the most critical changes in women’s minds, preconceptions, and even dreams. “All too often are our choices dictated by the prevailing norms and external expectations on what we should want and who we should be, but exactly the opposite should be the case: We should change the world with our unique choices and show that people are diverse and that this is where the strength of our creative and progressive communities lies,” Šimonytė said.