Women and science

The long way ahead towards equality

Josep Lluís Barona

Josep Lluís Barona, professor of History of Science at the University of València. He coordinated issue number 76 of Mètode.

Women have been traditionally excluded from the public sphere – education, politics, art and culture – and confined to the domestic sphere. This situation has experimented a slow steady change in different areas since the late modern period. A more liberal society has allowed the progressive incorporation of women to public life. From a feminine universe built around the idea of motherhood, women have been conquering spaces, social roles and rights intrinsic to the human condition without distinction of sexes: civil rights, the right to vote, to education, to non-discrimination.

Needless to say, women’s admission to the public sphere has not transpired evenly nor equally across societies, regions of the world, cultural traditions (rural versus urban), social classes or professions. Rather, women were initially to be found among the ranks of housewives, nurses, cigar sellers, social workers and in fields where the so-called «feminine attributes» fit in with the cultural model of patience, female sensitivity and the care of others. The professional world of science and technology has been monopolised by men until very recently. Nowadays women are to be found working at universities and in the professional world; however, we must still ask ourselves whether there are actually equal rights and opportunities in all fields of science and technology, as well in all levels of responsibility and leadership.

Discussing the current contribution of women to scientific work is necessary to know at what point do we find ourselves, what have we achieved, and what remains to be done if we are aiming for a real equality, without discrimination. The non-existence of legal obstacles does not necessarily imply an equal absence of social constraints or ideological prejudices. Women scientists know all too well these difficulties for reconciling work and life outside of it in a professional path so demanding and competitive. Despite the slow and quiet revolution carried out by women, which has meant their incorporation to the scientific world from a little over a century now, we need to be aware that only a true equality in leadership roles will mark the absence of gender bias. To get to this point, there is still a long way ahead.

Women at a pharmaceutical laboratory

This article is a personal reflection about the context and determining aspects that have caused the exclusion of women from the scientific sphere, from the viewpoint of cultural history.

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© Mètode 2017

Full Professor of the History of Science at the University of Valencia (Spain).