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Portugal leads in gender equality in research: What can we learn from their leaders?

June 17, 2021

By Domiziana Francescon

 Banner for Portugal gender report and experts

Experts interviewed for ‘Gender in the Portugal Research Arena’ analytical report talk about their country’s best practices and lessons learned

Caption: Elsevier’s new report Gender in the Portugal Research Arena features interviews with leaders in academica and government. Picturee here (clockwise from top left): Rosa Monteiro, Portugal Secretary of State for Citizenship and Equality; Prof Anália Maria Cardoso Torres, University of Lisbon; MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho; Bernard Magenhann, Deputy Director-General, Joint Research Centre, European Commission; and Prof Paula Campos Pinto (University of Lisbon)

Portugal has come a long way and leads in a range of indicators in STEM areas, including the aggregate number of women in science – particularly for early career researchers. Women represent nearly 50% of active authors in Portugal, and the country shows the largest percentage increase across Europe in women’s representation: an impressive 10% over the last two decades.

Gender in the Portugal Research Arena: a Case Study in European Leadershipopens in new tab/window offers a data-led look at the dynamics underlying Portugal’s leading edge. At the same time, it points to persisting gender gaps in research that require stronger transformative efforts, and it reveals how these gaps tend to mimic and perpetuate structural inequalities between women and men

For this report, we interviewed five academic and policy leaders in Portugal to put quantitative analyses into the context of policy perspectives and best practices. Our goal: to contribute insights from the experience of one country to inform policy and inspire targeted initiatives around the world to achieve gender equity in research.

1. What insight from the report do you find particularly interesting?

Rosa Monteiro: The report gives us a positive picture of gender diversity progress in research, in terms of authors , grant recipients and patent applicants. However, we also see that research reproduces structural gender inequality patterns. For example, the divide of women and men per subject area reproduces patterns of horizontal segregation, with an over-representation of women authors in areas such as nursing and psychology and of men in areas such as the physical sciences. Likewise, having men with longer publication histories and established international networks is a reflection of career interruptions and the reality that women still shoulder a much larger share of unpaid care work than men, with gender gaps in terms of pay and vertical segregation.

2. What value does data offer to policymakers and institutional leaders for addressing issues of gender diversity and equity?

Monteiro: We need to counter disinformation and growing attacks against scientific evidence. We need to recognize scientific knowledge and research as the only way to avoid biases and ensure impactful policies. Portugal has been producing robust data on the gender-based impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also a priority of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Through the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technologyopens in new tab/window, we are funding 15 projects on understanding national gender impacts of the pandemic on the labor market, on gender stereotypes, and on violence against women and domestic violence.

Maria da Graça Carvalho: It is very important to have the data because it can help policymakers design policies to address the problems that persist. Though Portugal is doing well in attracting women to careers in research by investing in their training, the country and society will not benefit if these women researchers do not have the conditions they need to succeed.

3. How would you describe the current state of gender diversity in research?

Monteiro: Portugal stands out in some indicators, with the proportion of women researchers above the EU average (43% vs 34%). These numbers are positive. However, they also point to a need for improvement. There are other numbers that worry us, and they are a reflection of patterns of systemic gender inequalities, such as the digital gender gap: women ICT specialists comprise only 0.9% of total women employment.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate negative impact on women researchers, with the long-term impacts still to unfold. The increase in unpaid care and domestic work during lockdowns translated into the reduction in the number of articles submitted for publication, research applications and projects among women researchers, jeopardizing their careers. And the lack of women researching Covid-19 will affect the way future public policies are perceived and shaped.

Prof: Analia Maria Cardoso Torres: In Europe, the introduction of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals applied some outside pressure to change with regard to gender equality. We are at a moment where gender equality issues are highly visible in Portugal and policies are being targeted to address equality issues. We need to make this most of this moment and focus on ensuring the sustainability of gender equality in research.

Bernard Magenhann: The situation has improved over time, but the Covid-19 pandemic has also interrupted the pace of progress, and to a certain extent, it has set it back – as highlighted by the European Commissionopens in new tab/window. We saw that the rate of publications by women authors decreases over their career: while, on average, women outnumber men at the student and graduate levels, and we reach broad gender balance at the PhD level, their distribution in the fields of study is uneven. In the STEM fields, this trend is even worse — and there likely are persistent gender stereotypes at work here.

4. Are there initiatives that you feel have impacted progress?

Monteiro: In 2019, our national parliament passed a pioneer law establishing a minimum 40% threshold for women and men on candidate lists for elective decision-making bodies in public higher education institutions (HEI). I am positive that this law will induce transformation not only as numerical change but as an organizational qualitative leap. HEIs are developing gender equality plans that include targets for gender balance in decision-making positions and measures to induce organizational change, promote gender studies and mainstream a gender dimension into research.

We are also funding research projects in critical policy areas, such as the economic impact of gender inequality dimensions, including the pay gap, horizontal segregation, and unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work.

da Graça Carvalho: While we have been very successful in attracting women to research careers, we have been less focused on career development. Interventions are needed to address issues such as the leaky pipeline and the pay gap. We have near parity in pay between women and men among younger researchers, but this starts decreasing along their career in a very striking way. We need to boost women’s confidence so they are successful as their careers progress, and so we do not lose the investments made in the early stages of their career.

Magenhann: I think the good results in Portugal are driven by policy measures that were adopted at all levels at universities, research organizations, and companies. Portugal has worked to embed gender equality as part of everyday life, and these messages must come from the top. One tactic is to make women in science more visible to the public, for example, by having more women in STEM visible in the media.

5. What are the most important factors that influence progress toward equity in research?

Monteiro: We need to remove the invisible barriers that lead to indirect discrimination against women. There remains a significant invisibility of women researchers in area thought as “male” subject areas, and vertical segregation connected to leaky pipelines, work-life balance difficulties, unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, instability of research careers, and lesser involvement of women in research networks and informal networks.

Prof Cardoso Torres: It has been a ground-up effort, with policies put in place as an answer to the movement, rather than the policies driving the movement. The first women who had an active role in research were highly visible and encouraged other women to enter research, and then the policies to support women started to appear.

Prof Paula Campos Pinto:While it is necessary to open opportunities for people to enter the system, it is also important to create the conditions to ensure that they have the same opportunities when they are in. Women still have a very unequal share of unpaid work in terms of domestic work, childcare, etc. It's not just a matter of getting women into the system; once they get in, there is a need to ensure women are not left dealing with a more difficult situation with a bigger burden of work.

da Graça Carvalho: When I studied mechanical engineering, there were only two women in my class of 120. As those numbers increased, women no longer felt as isolated, and felt included as part of the group: it was much easier for them to continue and succeed.

Portugal never moved toward quotas in research or university careers. Instead, we incentivized STEM careers with scholarships. It takes time and consistency, over several decades, to achieve cultural change — and we have been very successful in attracting women into research in biotechnology, chemistry, and the health sector.

Magenhann: Achieving full gender equality requires that the value of gender equity becomes embedded in society: at some point, interventions will no longer be needed because the concept will have become normalized. The culture is already changing, and that is good. The Covid-19 pandemic had a particularly negative effect on women. As we come out of the pandemic, I hope we will see new HR policies that allow more teleworking and more flexibility for working families. I hope organizations will start to see remote working as an option that benefits work-life balance. The pandemic was incredibly disruptive, but it also gives us an opportunity to understand what wasn’t working and how things can improve moving forward.


Portrait photo of Domiziana Francescon


Domiziana Francescon

Partnerships Manager