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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Cross-disciplinary projects > Women and science: Engendering European research culture > Maria Teresa Amaral Collašo
Graphic element Maria Teresa Amaral Collaço: Breaking down societal barriers
Maria Teresa Amaral Collaço

Maria Teresa Amaral Collaço is a scientist with over 30 years experience at the National Institute of Engineering and Industrial Technology (INETI) in Lisbon, Portugal. She is head of the department of biotechnology, specialising in industrial microbiology and is currently looking at new ways of increasing the added value of food crops and agro-industrial residue. Her expertise was utilised in the evaluation of several projects in the recent GROWTH programme.

"Life is definitely easier for women in industry nowadays than when I started out on my career," explains Collaço. "Thirty years ago it was generally accepted that a woman was not capable of doing the same job as a man. We were not generally regarded as potential leaders. Two or three years after completing my biology degree at university, I observed that nearly all the men who had been my colleagues had found better jobs, while only a few women were properly employed. Like many other young graduate women, I acquired post-graduate degrees and experience in an unpaid post at the national institute of industrial research before getting my first job. Men usually did not need to go through this step - they were better accepted, even with lower qualifications. One possible reason for this situation was that men may prefer to work with other men, and that is something that unfortunately still persists in the workplace culture in some sectors."

Selecting on merit

"Here in Portugal, research positions in general are not very well paid," says Collaço. "This is one of the reasons why the majority of people working in industrial research in this country are women. However, this does not apply within the private sector.

Collaço is currently investigating biotechnology industrial applications at INETI. One EU-funded project launched under the Fifth Framework Programme is aimed at optimising an integrated process for different biomass wastes for the pharmaceutical and food industries using xylo-oligosaccharides and xylitol. Plant raw materials, mainly agricultural and industrial wastes, are being used to produce higher added-value products. The xylo-oligosaccharides may eventually be developed into pharmaceuticals for combatting inflammatory conditions or cancer, or they may find a use as food additives.

"While women have moved into more leadership positions, they are still relatively few. My impression is that women managers are more likely to promote employees based on merit. Some men may be reluctant to select women because they think their having children to look after will detract from their performance and commitment at work. I believe that this is an old-fashioned mindset. Nevertheless, the situation has improved quite significantly in the past decade."

Promotion not expected

"Nowadays women do have more opportunities for career advancement in industrial research, but they also need to put themselves forward more," says Collaço. "The problem is that they often feel that it is not worthwhile. They think they will be passed over for promotion - either because they already have children, or may have them in the future. Whether their fears are real or imaginary, women are partly responsible for perpetuating this negative culture.

"Although I personally do not feel discriminatedagainst on account of my gender," says Collaço, "it occurs to me that I am often the only woman in a European Commission strategic working group alongside eight or nine men. I have no explanation for this. Then again, if a man is late for one of our meetings, nobody thinks for a moment this is due to family constraints. In fact, the barriers exist across the whole of society and are not specific to industrial research."

Taking steps

"Nowadays in Portugal the presence of women in industrial research is a reality. Women are more and more interested in the quality of their careers. In order to encourage more women into leadership roles, a number of proactive measures can be taken, for instance the offering of grants for women, tax breaks, and other financial incentives," says Collaço. "However, a lot of 'old thinking' would disappear even more quickly if more women were put into positions of authority. This requires direct action. For instance, it would be helpful if under the new Framework Programme there was a quota relative to the assigning of more women onto decision-making committees for research policies. There are many capable women researchers out there just waiting for an opportunity. It is less about introducing new initiatives than attacking the problem head-on."

Instituto Nacional de Engenharia e Tecnologia
Departamento de Biotecnologia
Estrada do Paço do Lumiar, 22 - Edif. F r/c
1649-038 Lisboa
Tel: (351-21)7163640
Fax: (351-21)7163636

Selecting on merit
Promotion not expected
Taking steps

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