Take Five: "If we add the "glass ceiling" to the challenges of the occupation, the development of women researchers becomes more difficult"

Ana Inés Zambrana has a degree in Biochemistry from the Universidad de la República and a Master's degree in Biology from the Program for the Development of Basic Sciences (PEDECIBA). She did her undergraduate thesis at the Biotechnology Department of the ETH Zürich Institute (Switzerland), where she researched transgenic rice, biofortified with iron. As for her Master's thesis, she investigated different aspects of type 1 diabetes and its impact on cardiac health (carried out at the Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute, Uruguay). She also completed a Diploma in Project Management for Cooperation (FLACSO-OEI) and specializations in Communication, Extension and Science Education.



Photo: courtesy of Ana Inés Zambrana 

You have a history of working to advance gender equality in science at the national and regional level. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, what measures do you think should be a priority to advance in this direction?

In terms of gender equality at the regional and national level, I think it is a priority to have public and institutional policies that accompany the paths of women scientists in their careers.

Due to gender bias and disparities that have their origin in historical inequalities (lack of recognition, impediments to pursue a career or even appropriation and plagiarism of results of women scientists), women have been relegated from decision-making positions and this, in turn, limits the promotion of other women researchers who lead.

This is how a negative vicious cycle is formed, in which women scientists with long careers are not recognized for their trajectory and male scientists continue to predominate in the higher ranks.

Not having the possibility of promotion makes the work situation of women researchers precarious and frustrating, hence making them less eager to work.

A scientific career is an activity that involves a great deal of imagination and creativity, in addition to the technical and academic level required to pose and solve problems. If we add the "glass ceiling" to the challenges of the occupation, the development of women researchers becomes more difficult. Some highly motivated people with great ideas are left by the wayside, and they are unable to develop in science due to lack of institutional support and public policies that allow them to remain in academia.

You belong to the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)/UNESCO and from there you have dedicated yourself to promote the voice of women scientists and to visibilize the contributions made by women to science and technology. In the current context, what are your new challenges and how are you facing them? 

In the course of my career as a researcher, I have been internalizing the problems in terms of lack of diversity and inclusion in science, beyond the gender issue.

There are minorities in our society that are not represented among the leaders of science in Uruguay and in the region. The biggest challenge that I am facing now is that the democratization of science is still not universally achieved. An inclusive and diverse vision is needed in science so that it can answer questions that include the needs of the whole society.

I believe that through the professionalization of science communication (both science journalists and scientists who are dedicated to communication), science can become a tool for social justice, in which knowledge and scientific production in Latin America would enable the population to have access to more tools to make decisions and improve their quality of life.

What does your current work consist of?

In the last stages of my master's degree in Molecular Biology focused on health I discovered my vocation for science communication and education. This led me to specialize in various aspects of science outreach and science diplomacy, in addition to continuing my research career.

I was trained thanks to UNESCO, AAAS and INGSA in Science Diplomacy and in Science Communication with the course The Art of Science Communication of the ASBMB.

Currently, I am a member of the ASBMB Science Communication and Outreach Committee and I am a member of the Bardo Científico collective. I also co-organize the activities of the Taste of Science Festival in Uruguay, which has its origin in the Taste of Science Festival in the United States and in the ACS Chemistry Festival. Finally, I am a member of the Uruguay Section of the OWSD and from the Board of Directors we promote and, among other things, support activities that relate science with education and society with a gender perspective.

Why do you think it is important to strengthen the empowerment of women in science? 

By strengthening and accompanying the academic careers of women scientists, they thrive in their careers.

When women in science emerge as role models, the new generations see that it is possible to "think of themselves as scientists", because motivation can be sparked by noticing someone has already achieved certain goals.

The academic career is very demanding and requires a lot of training and specialization, as well as interdisciplinary work to achieve robust and publishable results. If women researchers are in a favorable environment for scientific production, they will have a richer academic trajectory. On the other hand, when women (who make up half of the world's population) participate in areas of societal development, regardless of the activity or profession we have, Humanity is strengthened. 

The stereotype is often perpetuated that girls are not smart enough to perform in STEM or that boys have a greater affinity for it. What do you think can be done to reverse this? 

This situation that still permeates the educational system and society in general, can be reversed by taking actions to promote science to audiences that see that it is possible to do quality research in our country. It is important to promote scientific culture from an early age, for example through the MEC Science Clubs that target children and young people from all over the country.

If you want to learn more about the barriers that lead to gender gaps in STEM in the region, we offer you the study Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the Latin America and the Caribbean region. The document presents an analysis of national policies and plans/programs designed to reduce disparities between men and women, giving visibility to successful initiatives implemented to attract more girls and young women to the STEM field and analyzes the pending challenges in the perspective of a greater representation of women in the jobs of the future and in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.