Gender failings put half of science talent at risk

Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. Copyright:

Speed read

  • Liliam Álvarez Díaz is secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences
  • She authored the book Be a female scientist or die trying
  • She became interested in gender due to the imbalances she saw

CIf science fails to take advantage of girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of the available talent, according to Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

She is a staunch defender of the value of so-called hard sciences in development and has a PhD in physical and mathematic sciences, and in 2016 published the book Be a female scientist or die trying. SciDev.Net asked her how to tackle some of the challenges faced by women in science today.

What was it like studying physics in Cuba in the 1970s?

When I climbed the steps of the University of Havana in 1968 and enrolled in physics, it was like a challenge. The second year I realised that I should have studied maths because I was doing much better in maths-related subjects. But, a diligent girl with a conservative spirit, I said: “I started physics, I’ll finish physics.”

What was the context? Were you the only woman?

No, there were other girls. Those years were very interesting. You enrolled in what you wanted. There were no entrance exams. There was a wonderful student residence. It was a great privilege. In the first class of physics, there were more than 100 students in a huge classroom. When we finished there were only 25 of us. At that time nobody talked about gender.

What is your research area about? How is it related to applied science?

In many spheres of science, many phenomena are modelled with mathematical equations. For example, how is the hurricane path calculated? With equations. How was the dome of the Sports City, in Havana, calculated? It was the work of civil engineers, with a mathematical model.

Calculations of differential equations are applied to meteorology, chemical kinetics. For example, if you inject a drug, how is it going to distribute inside the organism? That is kinetic, and it is a system of equations.

liliam alvarez en costa rica.JPG
Liliam Álvarez Díaz with colleagues from a recent Teaching Mathematics Symposium in Costa Rica..

What drew you to studying gender in science?

I got into gender issues in the 1990s because I observed that, not only in Cuba but in the world, there were very few women in physics or mathematics. I am not a gender expert, but I learned what gender is, that is a cultural definition, not given by biology.

I was always interested in the metaphors that experts in gender use, and I started to collect them. The first one: glass ceiling. Gender specialists explain it in a certain way but for me it is something all women face. Above is the power and below is us, and to get there we have to hit that glass ceiling.

What did you achieve in the eight years you worked as director of science?

We transformed national programmes, we opened institutes, which did not exist until then. We did a lot with schools, especially teachers, to promote science, because we realised that the creation of new generations of scientists in Cuba happens through the training of teachers.

We introduced science festivals. We were the pioneers in Cuba of something that already existed in the world: the experience of talking about science to the general public. We filled the Capitol with teachers talking about genomics, protons, and stem cells.

Despite Cuban statistics where women make up more than 50 per cent of parliamentarians, or 63 per cent of the science sector, there are still obstacles. What are they?

First, in general, in daily life. As I meet with my counterparts, scientists from other countries, I see that their daily life is not as difficult as ours.
Second, wages. The standard of living is a great obstacle, not only in your personal life, but as a role model for young girls. You’re competing with successful artists or singers.

What signs of discrimination do you see in the science sector?

They are not very open, but they exist. For example, I had a very pretty student who dressed in short skirts. My colleagues asked why this girl was studying maths instead of dancing at the [Havana cabaret club] Tropicana. That is discrimination.

UNESCO reports that only 35 per cent of people in STEM careers are women. How can this be reversed?

If science does not take advantage of those girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of talent.
How can you influence this reality from an early age? You have to design strategies and policies. A Spanish teacher recently told me that she got her girls to write on the theme I do not want to be a princess; I want to be a quantum physicist. I give you this example because we need a strategy from the ministries and then from the media.

Education, breastfeeding and gender affect the microbes on our bodies.

Trillions of microbes live in and on our body. We don’t yet fully understand how these microbial ecosystems develop or the full extent to which they influence our health. Some provide essential nutrients, while others cause disease. A new study now provides some unexpected influences on the contents of these communities, as scientists have found that life history, including level of education, can affect the sorts of microbes that flourish. They think this could help in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

The more the merrier.

A healthy human provides a home for about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes. These microbes are known as the microbiome, and normally they live on the body in communities, with specialised populations on different organs.

Evolution has assured that both humans and bacteria benefit from this relationship. In exchange for somewhere to live, bacteria protect their hosts from harmful pathogens. Past analysis of the gut microbiome has shown that, when this beneficial relationship breaks down, it can lead to illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, a chronic digestive disorder.

You’ve been swabbed

One of the largest research projects looking at the delicate connection between humans and their resident microbes is called the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). As part of the project, hundreds of individuals are being sampled for microbes on various parts of their bodies, with the hope that the data will reveal interesting relationships.

In the new study, published in Nature, Patrick Schloss at the University of Michigan and his colleagues set out to use data from the HMP to investigate whether events in a person’s life could influence their microbiome.

Their data came from 300 healthy individuals, with men and women equally represented, ranging in age between 18 and 40. Life history events, such as level of education, country of birth, diet, and recent use of antibiotics were among 160 data pieces were recorded. Finally, samples were swabbed from 18 places across the body to analyse their microbiome communities at two different time intervals, 12 to 18 months apart.

Those swabs underwent genomic analysis. A select group of four bacterial communities were selected to test what proportion of each was found on different body parts. That data was then compared with life history events. Only three life history events out of about 160 tested could be associated with a specific microbial community. These were: gender, level of education, and whether or not the subject was breastfed as a child.

This complicated issue may help diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. “If a certain community of bacteria is associated with a specific life history trait,” Schloss said, “it is not such a stretch to imagine that there may be microbiome communities associated with illnesses such as cancer.”

To be sure, these associations are only correlations. Neither Schloss nor hundreds of other scientists working on microbiome data can be sure why certain communities end up on certain body parts of only certain individuals. “We really don’t have a good idea for what determines the type of community you’ll have at any given body site,” Schloss said.

Lack of such knowledge means that Schloss cannot explain odd correlations, such as why women with a baccalaureate degree have specific communities in their vaginal microbiome. Because level of education is also associated with a range of other factors such as wealth and social status – we can’t know that it is only education affecting the vaginal microbiome. Janneke Van de Wijgert at the University of Liverpool said, “I think that it is impossible to tease out the individual effects of education, sexual behaviour, vaginal hygiene behaviour, ethnicity, and social status.”

Van de Wijgert believes the data has other limitations. “The study population of a mere 300 was homogenous and healthy – young, white women and men from Houston and St Louis – which likely means that much additional microbiome variation has been missed.”

With better tools, genomic data analysis has substantially improved since the project launched in 2008. Van de Wijgert thinks that future studies need to sample a lot more individuals and look for changes at shorter time intervals.

She is hopeful that microbiome data can be used to improve medicine, make it more tailored to individual. But before manipulations of the microbiome are used to treat illnesses, she said, it should be confirmed that the offending bacteria communities cause – and are not symptom of – disease. If the bacteria causes an illness, then efforts can be made – such as a change in diet or microbial transplant – to treat disease.

The Conversation

Response to acute concussive injury in soccer players: is gender a modifying factor?

Several studies have suggested a gender difference in response to sports-related concussion (SRC). The Concussion in Sport group did not include gender as a modifying factor in SRC, concluding that the evidence at that point was equivocal. In the present study the authors endeavored to assess acute neurocognitive and symptom responses to an SRC in equivalent cohorts of male and female soccer players. The authors hypothesized that female athletes would experience greater levels of acute symptoms and neurocognitive impairment than males.


Baseline symptom and neurocognitive scores were determined in 40 male and 40 female soccer players by using the Immediate Postconcussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) scale prior to any SRC. After sustaining an SRC, each athlete completed postconcussion ImPACT tests and was carefully matched on a wide array of biopsychosocial variables. Baseline symptom and neurocognitive test scores were compared, and their acute symptoms and neurocognitive responses to concussive injury were assessed.


Specific a priori hypotheses about differences between males and females at baseline and at postconcussion measurements of verbal and visual memory ImPACT scores were evaluated according to simple main effects of the gender variable and according to baseline-to-postconcussion main effect and interaction of 2 × 2 split-plot ANOVA. Neither the interaction nor the main effects nor the simple main effects for either ImPACT variable were found to be statistically significant. Exploratory ANOVAs applied to the remaining ImPACT variables of visualmotor speed, reaction time, impulse control, and symptom total scores revealed only a single statistically significant baseline-to-postconcussion main effect for the symptom total.


The results failed to replicate prior findings of gender-specific baseline neurocognitive differences in verbal and visual memory. The findings also indicated no differential gender-based acute response to concussion (symptoms or neurocognitive scores) among high school soccer players. The implications of these findings for the inclusion of gender as a modifying factor in this tightly matched cohort are addressed. Potential explanations for the null findings are discussed.

Source: Journal of Neurosurgery

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