Skip to main content
Receive our editor’s picks: 

Why science should be calling out for women

Marisa Matias, MEP and member of the GUE/NGL group © European Union 2007PE-EP
Marisa Matias, MEP and member of the GUE/NGL group © European Union 2007PE-EP

Marisa Matias is a Portuguese MEP of the European United Left / Nordic Green Left group (GUE/NGL). A social scientist by training, she is very active in the areas of public health, science and research. Why should science be calling out for women? She believes it will help tackle Europe’s brain drain. ‘It will help jugulate the brain drain Europe is suffering and boost gender equality,’ she says.

Do you think there is a stereotype about women not having natural scientific abilities?  

There are lots of stereotypes concerning women. Science is no exception. We need to fight against them. If we look at job distribution among directors of research centres and heads of universities, we still see huge inequalities in power relations. We don't have less women scientists, but their roles still fit the preconceptions we have about women. We have brilliant women, we have brilliant men, that's not the issue. The issue is about opportunity.

Do women have something to bring to science that is different?

I'm not sure, but the fact that women don't have the same opportunities as men is a loss for science. Women have to be much more qualified in every domain in order to occupy the same positions as men, and that's not acceptable. Many scientific women are in precarious job situations. We also need more friendly work policies. You can't have these crazy work schedules and expect women to deal with children and family and lower wages. I don't believe in the money arguement. The economic crisis is being used as an excuse for everything and I don't have any patience with that. We have the means. It's just about what we spend the money on.

What are the best arguments for convincing public authorities to invest in scientific education and research? 

We can't move ahead if we don't have a sound basis for the development of science and innovation across Europe. We can't cut funding for education and training in the fundamental sciences and concentrate on innovation and the market. Of course we need to innovate, but we also need the basics to guarantee that we can continue to innovate. We can't innovate in societies we don't know, and in order to know the societies we're trying to construct, we need to study them.

Do we need more women scientists or do we simply need more scientists?

We need both, despite the fact that over the last few years we've seen a huge increase in the number of women in scientific jobs. What we don't yet have is gender balance in the division of labour and tasks. The European Union has done good work in promoting the visibility of science, but they haven't done it right. With the economic crisis, we’re dealing with the biggest brain drain in our history. We need more people working in science and we need less precarious work conditions across Europe. We’re still far from the EU's promised investment of 3 % of GDP in science, innovation and development.

How do you encourage curiosity for science at school level, both among girls and boys?

There are several ways, and several countries have put models into practice. The research centre I worked at in Portugal had a summer science programme, which brought kids to work with us in the research centre. They had real tasks such as interviewing, dealing with data, and analysing the results with us. That's one way. Another is to go directly to the schools. In Portugal, we used to organise scientific cafés in schools, except we all drank water of course, and we'd have informal talks. The scariest thing is that although society is changing, the curricula aren't. In many countries, including my own, the curricula in schools all the way to universities are moving more slowly than society. For instance, the way economics is taught at schools hasn't changed for 20 years, as though we didn't have different schools of economic thought.

How can the EU promote excellence in science?

There's one thing I really don't understand at the European level: when we talk about public funding we don't accept failure. The fact is that science can't progress without failure. But we only fund success. When we apply for funding we need to spell out results three or five years down the line, and if we find something much more interesting along the way we need either to lie or forget we found it if we don't want to lose the funding. There must be other ways of conducting scientific policy.

Never miss a story

Sign up for our weekly news alert