Marcela Linkova - science is ultimately about power

Marcela Linkova

My guest in One on One today is Marcela Linkova, a young researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences and coordinator of the National Contact Centre - Women in Science. The centre was opened five years ago to support women making a career in science. Since then it has been involved in many activities both on a domestic and international scale from creating databases of women scientists to promoting young female scientific talents. I met Marcela in her office in downtown Prague and first asked her what in her opinion humankind was missing with the relatively low number of women scientists.

"Well, I don't know what the humankind is missing but I know that women are missing out on opportunities. Women are missing out on what they want to do, they are frustrated, they may feel injustice and they probably feel that they are not given equal treatment, equal chances and that their rights are not fulfilled. And this is for me the most important thing. It's not about what women can do for society, for the economy, although I do recognise this is the dominant discourse for promoting the issue of women in science or equal opportunities in general. But for me it remains an issue of human rights and the right of women to have an equal share in the resources that societies offer including intellectual and cultural development, personal development."

What do you think is the single most important issue why women may hesitate to become scientists or why they maybe are less ambitious in sciences - is it the difficulty to balance professional and private life, or is it pay discrimination or the glass ceiling? What do you think is the most important issue?

"I think that you touched two different issues. One is the decision to become a scientist, and I think that young girls and women definitely have to struggle with various prejudices during their entire educational career. They are faced with teachers who discourage them from taking up certain subjects. Their families are probably not too supportive if they decide to go for physics or math. So I think that traditional gender stereotypes, stereotypes in education, the attitudes of teachers both male and female to what sorts of careers or subjects girls and young women should be active in - these play a role in the decision to go for a certain field of study at university.

"I think that the decision to go for a PhD is sometimes haphazard. We can't say easily - as a research project that we conducted for the Ministry of Education a couple of years ago shows - that you would go to university and students would be hard set on doing a research career. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding whether or not you will go for a PhD, and that's true for both men and women. But then when you are actually doing a PhD and you go for a post doc or you're deciding on your research career work-life balance seems to play a role for women scientists that it does not play for young men scientists. Young men scientists will probably be thinking about the salary. Can I support my family or not? Would I be better off in the private sector?

"But for women scientists, definitely, the fact that they plan to have a family enters as a factor into decisions when and how and for how long they can go on a fellowship, whether they can go on a fellowship etc. And the issue of how to, not necessarily only harmonise, but how to deal with the fact that the labour market, the organisational structure does not take people with families, or women with families, as something that is integral and should be just taken for granted and there should be conditions created for this. I think the problem is that women tend to internalise this issue as their own personal problem that they need to deal with rather than seeing it as something that the institution, the structure should deal with because it is set up on completely different values and expectations."

Some say that science is not only about knowledge production but also ultimately about power...

Photo: European Commission
"That's absolutely correct. It is about power. And that's also why the issue of women in science is so important because that's about power. Because if we do not have equal chances, equal treatment in the sciences - and that does not only mean women in the sciences who are contributing to knowledge production but also society at large, then we have a science that is skewed, that reflects the values and the social conditions of only certain groups. In this context specifically men because science has been historically organised on the social experience and conditions that men have in society.

"And also their values, their perceptions, what they consider important, where they see the problems. And these instances of how science has been skewed, how it has not been 'objective' so to say have been documented by feminist and gender researchers. How for example, breast cancer has not been studied until very recently when the feminist movement brought it to the fore, and there are numerous other instances.

"So in this sense yes, it is about power. About the power of women and other groups to define what is a relevant research project, where the money should go, whether it's relevant to give so much money, for example, for military research or whether we might want to consider some other areas that are more relevant with respect to women's experience of social life. And this goes also for the larger aspect of communicating science to society and having a democratic relationship between science and society, so that society at large, lay people, can also have a say in where science is going, what we are doing with the new knowledge, for example in terms of GMOs or cloning or stem cell research etc. and I think that, yes, we can't shy away from the fact that we are dealing with power issues."

If you were to look into your crystal ball to try and predict for how long your centre will be necessary - what would you say?

Photo: European Commission
"Well, I guess I could say I expect to pass it on to someone in the next generation but I don't know how long. The thing is that feminism or gender equality is not about eliminating gender differences. Of course, gender stereotypes and gender roles may change in some time and we will be living in a freer society. But ultimately I think that growing towards or building equality in the perceptions of gender values, gender roles etc., that's really a long term process and I don't even know whether we can ever completely achieve it. It's similar to achieving racial equality or class averse etc. and I think that these are long term projects. Perhaps the axes will shift or we may think in fifty years that the situation has improved dramatically but the younger generations will probably think that the situation is still bad - the way we look at the 19th century."