Capitolina Díaz: «The science field is not free from the pay gap»

Sociologist and President of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists


capitolina-diaz-portadaPhD in Sociology from the University of London, Capitolina Díaz is a woman with an important academic and professional career. In the past she occupied the positions of Director of the Sciences and Women Unit and General Director of Equal Employment in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Equality. She is currently president of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT), as well as professor of Sociology at the University of Valencia, where she coordinates, along with a colleague from the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department, a European project to research the pay gap and the domestic work gap between men and women. After spending a little while in her office, we get a clear and detailed picture about gender inequality in the science world.

Why is researching from a gender perspective important?
We could say that researching from a gender perspective means a less biased research. Conventional research, supposedly neutral, is one-eyed in the sense that it only looks at one half of the population, and it is so arrogant as to think that what applies to male population applies as well to female population, although this might not be necessarily true. We are very different in many ways: because of biological reasons, social reasons and the combination of both. Therefore, one element can have a different impact for each one of these aspects. For instance, I am thinking about medical or pharmacological research, traffic management in cities or house design.

What are the problems with this kind of research?
In sociology, there is a problem regarding the lack of samples that differentiate between men and women. For instance, at the Centre of Sociological Research (CIS), a public-funded centre dedicated to sociological research in Spain, the vast majority of researches older than twenty years do not have this kind of information. And so, if we want to do a historical analysis, from a certain point backwards we do not have any data. Since the decision of the Council of Ministers in 8 March 2005 and following organic laws, it was established that all public-funded surveys had to be broken down by gender. Even so, many research projects still receive funding even if they do not ensure a gender balance in their samples, nor broken down data.

You often use a concept coined by yourself: «social gender hysteresis». What does it mean?
The concept of hysteresis is used in physics to refer to materials that, when being subjected to certain conditions, usually pressure, experience a deformation and, when this pressure is lifted, they remain deformed as if they were still under it. My proposal to the social sphere is that we suffer from a sort of social gender hysteresis, in the sense that for many centuries, humanity has gotten used to seeing women only occupying private and low-key spaces, with very few women standing out in political or scientific fields, and always exceptional cases. For centuries it was actually believed that women were not capable of executing certain tasks. But nowadays, there are more women than men in universities, and with higher levels of performance. We can find women in every science field, descending into volcanoes, diving into the ocean, in the Antarctica, developing their professional careers in areas that require a very high specialisation level. But, somehow, it is still quite common to think that men are more adequate in certain issues regarding knowledge and that they have a more powerful cognitive ability than women. This is a sort of deformation in our way to perceive the world that remains today, also within the science field.

How does gender inequality affect the scientific and academic world?
In the very process of accessing a university, we already see some sexism in the choice of degrees. Later on, although it is not very noticeable, in the path towards a PhD, women obtain better results than men, and nowadays, we can say that 50% of dissertation defenses are completed by women. From this point onwards, they start to lose power and they are progressively expelled from the academic-scientific system. The percentage of women that occupy a department chair does not reach 20%. In the Spanish National Research Council, there is only 22% of women researchers. These numbers are very close to the average levels in Europe. Of course, the presence of women in positions of power at universities is scarce. Currently we only have one woman principal, at the University of Granada. The issue is so serious than on 20 June, an association of women principals will be presented in Brussels, with the goal of increasing the visibility of women’s meager presence in organisms that run university teaching and research. The situation is very similar in research centres: less than 15% are run by women. Regarding the business world, we find that in Spain 33% of management positions in R&D companies are occupied by women, numbers superior than the European average. Nevertheless, we find very few women at the top of science and technology-based companies. Moreover, in these companies the pay gap between men and women has been observed to be very wide.

Regarding the relation between gender and academic and scientific promotion, we find concepts such as «glass ceiling» or «leaky pipeline». What do they mean?
The metaphor of the leaky pipeline is used to describe the fact that, even there is equal access to university – or even the number of women who do is actually higher –, as they move forward with their degrees and professional careers, their presence decreases. Women are lost in the way, they fall through the holes as the pipeline gets higher. The glass ceiling concept also refers to this phenomenon. Women progress in primary and secondary school, we access the degrees we want and we complete them more successfully than men. The National Awards for Excellence in Academic Performance for the best academic records have been granted mainly to women in recent years. But from this moment on, when it is time to access a public research body or a university position, women start to disappear; as the ranks get higher, their presence decreases radically. That is, we find an invisible ceiling, which is why we call it «glass ceiling»: we cannot see it but is very hard, like armored glass.

What is the so-called «impostor syndrome»?
It was coined to designate a sort of fear that takes over some people that reach a power position. They feel like maybe they should not occupy this place, that they have not done enough to get there. They even fear that, at some point, something happens that makes obvious that they do not have the required level. This syndrome is especially suffered by women because, unlike men, they have not been raised to think: «hey, you are worth it, you can achieve any goal you want». It took a brand of cosmetics for someone to express that idea of «Because I’m worth it». This makes things difficult. Women work very hard to get their goals, but they do not get any recognition on the way. Therefore, when they reach higher ranks, they might doubt if they are truly worth it, especially when other people – usually men – who think they are more than qualified are competing for the same position.

Can we really speak of complete freedom to choose a training path? How do expectations and gender stereotypes condition this choice?
People are very conditioned by the world where we live, and expectations for girls and boys tend to be quite different. The role models they see at home as they grow, gendered toys, most of tales or children TV shows are some of the factors that define which one is the male role and which is the female one, and how they should enter the professional world. Like in many other aspects, we are conditioned when we choose a career.

capitolina-diaz-intSome research projects are focusing now on the pay gap. Is the STEM field free from this kind of discrimination?
In this moment, the group of science and gender at the Sociology Department is doing a research about the pay gap in the University of Valencia, a project integrated in the second equality programme of our university. We do not have enough data to extract conclusions about it. However, I have just seen results of a research carried on by colleagues at the University of the Basque Country and the pay discrimination between men are women is highly noticeable, in every academic level and even between departments. The research carried on by colleagues of the University of Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago had similar results, same as a pioneering research in this field made by Austrian universities. So no, we are not free from it.

Policies for the reconciliation of work and family life are supposed to be tools to overcome gender discrimination, even though some authors question if they are enough and affirm that reconciliation in Spain is moving towards increasing the female work activity, not so much mitigating the gender work division. What do you think about this?
I am in favour of reconciliation policies for women and for men. Our economic system is more subjected to financial dictates than to the society welfare. Applying measures that allow people to reconcile their productive periods with the rest of activities in their life is something everyone should be committed to, especially governments and authorities. Life is not only productive life. Therefore, working days should be intensive during those periods in life where a person could easily have people in their care. But, at the same time, there should be policies targeting men to encourage them to take an equal share of responsibility in domestic tasks and home care, so this idea really settles in our society. A few years ago, a man could brag in public about hitting his girlfriend and nothing happened, he even had supporters. Even if we still have a remarkable rate of feminicides, I doubt anyone can do that anymore: that sort of conducted would be reproached. In this sense, I hope that is possible to get to a society where shared responsibility by men makes it easier to censure those who do not support the idea.

What role should the media play to overcome gender inequality?
The media should reflect on themselves and find out if they are presenting the society in which we live appropriately and in a realistic way. I think that media is especially affected by social gender hysteresis. A good part of the audience that receives information produced by media are women, but what they get do no reflect their real situation. In a way, we could say that media act like some sort of deformed mirror, which gives back an image to women that does not match the reality. The fact that in this country there has not been any big newspaper directed by a woman probably tells us something about it. 

David González. Sociology graduate and student of the Master’s Degree in History of Science and Scientific Communication at the University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2016

© Mètode 2016

Graduat en Sociologia i estudiant del Màster Universitari en Història de la Ciència i Comunicació Científica de la Universitat de València.