Women in Science in Brazil: still invisible?

Fernanda De Negri, research leader at the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea), reflects on the visibility of women in science and the challenge of increasing their representation in different areas of knowledge in Brazil.

Imagine a conference at the most important Scientific Society in Brazil. Several speakers (all men) are chatting while waiting for their turn to go up on stage. One woman, acquainted with several of the speakers, is also there, mingling and waiting to watch the panel. Another man joins the group and is introduced one by one to the people around him, with one exception: the woman, although acquainted, is absolutely ignored by the scientist leading the introductions. Overcoming women’s invisibility is a daily challenge for each and every one of us, especially in areas such as science, where your career hinges on being recognized for your intellectual contributions to your field.

Today, women are around 54 percent of doctorate degree-holders in Brazil, which represents an impressive increase of 10 percent in the last two decades.[1] This figure is similar to that of developed countries such as the United States, where in 2017 women earned 53 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the country.[2] In Brazil, as well as in the rest of world, however, this participation varies a great deal according to the area of knowledge. In life and health sciences, for instance, women are the majority of researchers (more than 60 percent), while in math and computer science they represent less than 25 percent.

Despite being the majority of people with doctorate degrees in several areas, Brazilian women are not so well represented at higher career levels. A recent study[3] has shown that women make up only 24 percent of recipients of a Brazilian government grant awarded to the most productive scientists in the country. Underrepresentation in leadership positions also persists: female scientists are only 14 percent of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

One could raise the hypothesis that, for several reasons (such as still being the primary caregiver for children), women are less productive than men. However, when it comes to scientific output, several figures show that Brazilian women outperform their male colleagues. An article published in Nature Magazine[4] a couple years ago found that women were responsible for almost 70 percent of total publications of Brazilian scientists between 2008 and 2012, one of the highest ratios in the world. The impact of the work of men and women is also comparable, as shown in a more recent study about gender in the global research landscape,[5] by Elsevier, which takes into account the number of citations of these papers.

Perhaps the lack of women in top scientific positions is the result of a deeper issue in the country, caused by the same factors that explain why women’s salaries are lower or why there are few women on the boards of companies, or even in high-level government positions. Perhaps women are not yet recognized as capable and competent by those responsible for selecting the candidates who get access to these positions: in most cases men. Perhaps, we are still invisible, just as the woman at that conference. Overcoming this invisibility requires the commitment of the whole society. Educational campaigns to stimulate girls to become scientists and to discuss the unconscious bias in selective processes are examples of ongoing initiatives in Brazil that are most welcome.


[1] CGEE, “Mestres e Doutores 2015 - Estudos da demografia da base técnico-científica brasileira,”

[2] Niall McCarthuy, “Women are Still Earning More Doctoral Degrees than Men in the U.S. [Infographic],” Forbes, October 5, 2018,

[3] “Somente 14% de membros da Academia Brasileira de Ciências são mulheres,” Galileu, August 8, 2018,

[4] Vincent Larivière, et al., “Bibliometrics: Global Gender Disparities in Science,” Nature, December 11, 2013,

[5] Elsevier, Gender in the Global Research Landscape (2017),


* This text was originally published in "A Snapshot of the Status of Women in Brazil: 2019", a publication edited by the Wilson Center Brazil Institute, based in Washington (USA). The original publication can be accessed here.