Advocating for gender parity in science: Interview with Dr. Helena Nader
May 15, 2023
By Ana Luisa Maia, Carolina Silva
As the first woman to hold the position of president at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences since its foundation 106 years ago, biomedical scientist Helena Nader, Ph.D. is a staunch advocate for gender parity in science. Earlier this March during International Women’s Month, Elsevier Research Solutions had the honor of interviewing one of Brazil's most respected researchers.
Helena Nader has been recognized with several honors, such as the Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize in Science and Technology in 2020, presented by CNPq, Fundação Conrado Wessel (FCW), and the Brazilian Navy; the rank of Commander and Grand Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit in 2008 from the Brazilian government; and the Scopus Prize presented by Elsevier/Capes in 2007, among many others.
In addition to being a full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, she is also a member of the Academy of Sciences of the State of São Paulo (Aciesp), the Latin American Academy of Sciences (ACAL), and the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). She graduated with a degree in Biomedical Sciences from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), a degree in Biology from the University of São Paulo (USP), and she obtained a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Unifesp. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship on the same topic at the University of Southern California in the United States. Dr. Nader studies glycochemistry and glycobiology, specifically the biological structure and function of heparin and heparan sulfate proteoglycans.
Dr. Nader is a full professor at Unifesp and has held several administrative positions, including the vice-presidency of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences between 2020 and 2022, the honorary presidency and vice-presidency of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), as well as the presidency of the Brazilian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SBBq).
Elsevier: The Brazilian Academy of Sciences was established in 1916. It's had 18 presidents, and you're the first woman to hold the position. It took over a century to see gender diversity in the presidency. What actions are being taken to increase female representation in science during your term? Are there more female directors in this administration?
Dr. Nader: There's been an increase in female-elected members in the last ten years, and today, we have several female directors in the administration. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences is ahead of many older and more traditional scientific academies, such as the German and French academies. For example, the United States National Academy of Sciences is 200-years-old and has had only one female president so far, Marcia McNutt, who was elected in 2016 and still is in office.
What happened [at the Academy] is that we realized the need to actively recruit highly-qualified women. This work continues, and today we've achieved a "50-50" balance between men and women in our Academy. One of the women we recruited from that search was our current Minister of Health, Nísia Trindade. However, while we are improving in terms of gender parity, we are still far behind when it comes to race. The Academy's active search also needs to follow the same criteria of the professional's scientific production impact. In a restricted group like a science academy, we cannot work with quotas—that's important to say. The process of approving members is based on qualification and merit.
Elsevier: The Brazilian Academy of Sciences has members throughout Brazil. Given the distinct realities in each region, does the issue of gender parity in the sciences present different challenges?
Dr. Nader: The conditions in the North are different from the South, Southeast, and Midwest regions, so there should be programs to retain researchers in those places, but there are none. It's not up to the Academy to promote this, but we can show it's important. And, we do so. Regarding the population, the distribution of science in the country is well-balanced.
The largest scientific production is in São Paulo. More members come from there to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, followed by Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and so on. In 2022, we had a new entry that fortunately goes against this reality—a woman from the North joined the Academy, ecologist, and scientist Ima Célia Vieira, Ph.D., from Pará., who is a researcher and former director of the Paraense Emílio Goeldi Museum. Of course, as an Academy we dream of equity in science throughout the country.
Elsevier: Recently, you had an article published by the Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, where you said a few things—that female researchers publish more papers but are still a minority in leadership positions, that only 35% of productivity grants (at the top of one's career) are awarded to women and that during the pandemic, there was a decline in studies developed by them. As a woman and president of the Academy of Sciences, how do you interpret this data and tackle this disparity?
Dr. Nader: In some areas, women are already achieving Type 1 productivity grants, but if we continue at this pace, it'll take many years to achieve gender parity in academia's top positions. I am in favor of revisions that take into account the size of knowledge areas, the total number of male and female researchers, and even a mathematical calculation, initially without the merit of resumes, to assess gender discrepancies. If we have so many highly-capable women, wouldn't they have to have Type 1 productivity grants? But this has to be an agreed-upon process, which has to be discussed with the entire community; it cannot be imposed. There are frameworks that are almost solidified; we have to show a need to revisit active recruitment. We can start with gender parity in the committees that judge the granting of grants. This is something that can be done and is already happening.
In Brazil, the proportion of women in politics is a joke if we compare it to other countries—of women CEOs in companies... It's so real when you become aware of it. Someone says "Ah, but Graça Fortes was the president of Petrobas..." When you name one [person], it's a sign that there's no one else, right? For me, it's clear that we won't be able to achieve [the United Nations'] Sustainable Development Goal 5 by 2030, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
It's a long-term change and has to start at home and in schools. From daycare. I really believe in this—without education for gender equality, we will never have gender equality. Brazil is a sexist country and this is also due to women who poorly educate boys. If a boy wants to play with kitchen sets and dolls, he can. He has to take care of the house just like his mother [or] his sister. If he sees his mother as a slave at home, he will enslave as well. Parents also need to be attentive to schools. This thing of girls wearing pink, and boys wearing blue...it's a perpetuation of gender inequality. There are no men's professions and women's professions.
Regarding what happened during the pandemic worldwide, with the increase in scientific production by men and the decrease in production by women... it's clear it's because women were staying at home taking care of their children. It's kind of atavistic, that women are supposed to be the caregivers. Where is it written?
Elsevier: Taking on the issue of motherhood... The choice carries such weight that makes it difficult to be both a mother and a researcher whilst pursuing a career, though research itself shows that there's no harm to children when their mothers work. How does the Brazilian Academy of Sciences address the issue of parenthood within its peer community?
Dr. Nader: The blaming of women—mothers who choose to continue with their careers—is very strong and impactful. I've also experienced this firsthand. I've always worked and am very proud of the mother my daughter has become and of who I am as a mother. But, again, it is the upbringing that counts. As for how this issue is addressed in the academic world, what the scientific community was able to achieve in 2021 was the inclusion of the birth and adoption dates of children in the Lattes Curriculum from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). For example, in a public competition, it's now possible to identify what caused a candidate who was producing a lot of work to suddenly stop, and then resume again. An intelligent committee would ask why, but we cannot rely on that. Those who evaluate projects or candidates for a competition will now have objective information on the Lattes [Curriculum], and this shows that different people cannot be compared using the same standards. Because men didn't have a break to take care of the children, while women did. Is everyone using this information? No. We cannot sweep this issue under the rug, but several institutions have already adopted it.
I provide many opinions to the European community, and in recent years, all of the projects I received were from women coordinators who clearly recorded their pregnancies in their curricula. The world is concerned about this. Why do we want inclusion? Because without it, there is no diversity. It is essential to have different perspectives on the same issue. Diversity does not destroy; it builds.
Elsevier: Do you believe that organizations like Elsevier, which has been considered one of the best companies in the world for women, can be strong allies in this process of developing and recognizing women in leadership positions through partnerships, collaborations in events—something that can bring even more incentives and inspiration to women?
Dr. Nader: Certainly! And I think that Elsevier, like so many other companies, needs to speak more intensively about this, make it clearer the positive impacts that their policies have on society, and value the actions they have taken over the years to encourage other organizations. And regarding events and partnerships, it will be a pleasure for us to work together.