Gender and Science

Gender and Science

Wed Dec 21 14:47:00 CET 2016

The consideration of gender in science and research is ever more frequently devoted attention not only among scientists but also in the media. One of the pioneers of so-called gender medicine is Israeli professor Marek Glezerman, whose book came out in July Gender Medicine – The Groundbreaking New Science of Gender and Sex-Based Diagnosis and Treatment. We speak with Prof. Václav Hořejší about the topic, what the current situation is at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the CAS, on the chaining of contracts, quotas and gender equality in science.

What is your view of so-called gender medicine that promotes research and clinical studies on male and female sex - whether in animals or humans? 
It is logical that a lot has been said on this topic recently. In our field, females are used almost exclusively in experimentation on mice. When three or four animals are placed in a cage, females do not fight, whereas males do, which naturally can influence the results – and the knowledge gained could even be true only for females.

Why not separate the males so that there is only one in each cage? 
Such a solution is possible, but it is more expensive. Caring for one cage (regular cleaning, bedding, feeding) costs the same, whether there is one mouse or four mice in it. In most cases, we believe (and I would say rightly) that the difference in results obtained in male and female are usually not so great, but they still need to be kept in mind.

In the world, mainly men participate in clinical experiments – they say as high as 75 %. Is this so also here? 
I think so. It is mainly logical that a certain health risk exists in such experiments. For instance, serious complications occur (although rarely) in testing new medicines; and a woman who has or wants to have children, certainly pays more attention to her health than a man. Riskier behaviour is generally in men apparently caused to a significant extent by genetics.

Are there other aspects than sex that you take into account in research on animals?
We commonly ignore for instance that the results will differe if we perform an experiment on animals in the morning, evening or at night. For example, mice are essentially night animals unlike people, so the experiments performed on them or with their cells during the day are more or less influenced by their biorythems. In publications describing the results of these experiments, such time data is often not presented – that problem is known but is not being resolved for now.

Evaluation of science and the chaining of contracts

You are one of the fathers of the current system for the evaluation of science – but the so-called coffee-grinder has, however, long faced criticism. 
When twenty years ago, one had to evaluate who is a good scientist, only the number of publications was assessed – the more, the better, which was bad, because it did not take into account at all what kind of publication they are; it did not evaluate in how high a quality publication the scientist published. In that Council for Research and Development (CRD) we therefore sought a way to include in the evaluation also (and mainly) quality. We designed a system in which the publications were awarded points depending on the facts, in how high a quality journal (with respect to the impact factor normalized to the respective scientific field) they were published, which allowed an approximate distinction of the differences in the publication productivity of various scientific institutes and teams. However, a useful instrument degenerated in the hands of the administrators of the CRD into a primitive three-part recalculation of publication points to money. And in that we find the mistake – because in the system introduced it is easy to replace quality with quantity: deliberately creating a considerable number of publications in not very high-quality journals, or purposefully and in mass producing the applied results of the “utility model” or “specimen”. The Academy of Sciences has consistently fought this system, accusing it not only of the problem of “quality vs. quantity” but also that it is in principle disadvantageous in some fields (especially social sociences and the humanities, but also in mathematics or in the technical sciences), because in these fields the publication habits are different than in the main natural science fields. However, I remain convinced that in their case the system is a useful tool for qualitative differentiation of outstanding workplaces from the weak ones, thus it serves to reveal what is sometimes called “dead wood”. Even in the rightly criticized distorted form, the “coffee-grinder” is more suitable than the “evaluation according to the number of publication in the style of “every piece is the same”.

What is your opinion on another current topic, namely employement on a contract for a specific period – so-called chaining of contracts? 
At the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the CAS, scientific employees (including me) have a contract for a specific period, typically for five years. The main reason is that we are dependent on grants, which are set in time. If some research team were repeatedly unsuccessful in gaining grant support, the institute could not cover the salaries of its employees from its budget. At our institute, we conduct an evaluation every five years, namely in coordination with the regular intenal evaluation of the entire Academy of Sciences. Employement contracts for fixed periods are a suitable instrument for the possible closure of a group, if it turns out that they do not show corresponding results, but I have to note that we use it exceptionally, because our employees are very successful in grant competitions. I know that at most universities leading scientific employees have contracts for an indefinite period, but it also has disadvantages – a person with such assurance can become lazy.

Chaining of contracts, however, put women-scientists into work uncertainty, especially at the time when they start their families – and in such a situation scientists who stop being protected turn to the National Contact Centre – Gender and Science of the Insitute of Sociology of the CAS.
At our institute, we naturally repsect the law in this area. When a scientist has a contract for a fixed period and during that period, let’s say at the beginning of the five-year period, she goes on maternity leave, we cannot close her position. The original period of the fulfilment of the contract still applies. When she returns to work after parental leave, the contract automatically starts to apply to her. We resolve the situation when she decides to remain at home for a longer time than parental leave by agreement, but I do not remember that we have resolved a problematic case.

Gender equality in science

How does the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the CAS stand on the implementation of gender equality?
If it is for instance quotas concerning the number of leaders of research teams, it does not belong in science in my opinion, but I agree if there were quotas in politics or other public functions; in that case they could play a positive role. In science (at least at our institute), women are definitely not discriminated against. On the contrary, we welcome it when a woman appears, who is competent and willing to serve in a leading function, but we unfortunately live in a society in which a woman still has more work at home, especially when she has children, through which her professional work more or less suffers. I have two daughters, one of whom is also a scientist and lives in England for the long term – so I have “first-hand” information. If women-scientists have children, they decide for instance whether they add to care for the family leadership of a research team. In such a position, the leader must be not only able to lead the team but must successfully care for grants and administrative affairs – if on an outstanding level – it is work for more than one full-time equivalent. That fact that women with children mainly do not overly rush into such posts is actually quite understandable.

I did not mean only a quota, but the creation of an environment in which there would be the same employment opportunities, because one of the reasons women leave science are unsatisfactory working conditions. 
It's certainly not so that women abandoned science and became housewives. Mainly, they connect motherhood and care for the family with less time-consuming and mentally demanding employment – in our case for example in a pharmaceutical company. It is a less demanding post than “full-on science”, when it is necessary to think constantly at work, on newly emerging professional problems, work more than eight hours a day, deal with work oftentimes also at weekends… It is often that women remain in the positions of members of research teams, which can certainly be connected easily with care for the family.
At our institute, we certainly have a gender sensitive environment. We have run our own nursery school already for the fifth year. When we opened it, some people said that it is too great a luxury and that we should rather put the money elsewhere. They also argued that they had never encountered something like that abroad, but when we opened the school, they minaly changed their minds. We accept children to the nursery school already from two years of age, so the parents return relatively early to the workplace. Another advantage is that parents at our institute can set their working day such that suited them to the utmost. And in some cases, like with female administrative employees, we allow partially also work from home.

Prepared by: Naďa Straková, Institute of Sociology of the CAS