A Double Bind: Minority Women Scientists in Europe

Even those who manage to avoid the sort of overt discrimination Saidani-Scott experienced may find themselves at a disadvantage.

Since then, tougher antidiscrimination laws have been enacted in all European countries. Yet minority women scientists still face obstacles that other scientists don’t. Meanwhile, the subject of discrimination remains largely taboo in European academia–especially discrimination against ethnic minorities. As a result, assistance remains ad hoc. “You have sometimes one professor … who can encourage you to achieve your research or your studies, but … at the moment, it’s quite difficult for ethnic minority students [and] women students to collectively get support at the university,” says Nouria Ouali, a social researcher at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. “They just have to bear it.”

A personal experience

The lab Saidani-Scott joined for her Ph.D. had  five North African and three native French staff members, but “we were really treated like the minority” there, she says. If one of the North Africans “wanted to use an apparatus, we had to wait for the others to finish,” she says. ” ‘If you are not happy, just go back to your country,’ ” she and her North-African colleagues were told. The only support they found was sympathy from French students in other groups.

Things got worse after she finished writing her thesis. Her supervisor “refused to read it for 9 months. He stopped my grant.” To pay her bills, she “started to do small jobs here and there,” she says. The experience took a toll on her health. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.” Saidani-Scott finally submitted and defended her thesis in 1984, after the Algerian Ministry of Education intervened.

After this, Saidani-Scott decided to go back to Algeria, where she took a university teaching position. She came back to research only 3 years later, in the United Kingdom, as a research assistant. This time, she found an excellent mentor, and her research and career benefited. She and her mentor “had a very good relationship. I worked hard. He supported me. It was working very well,” Saidani-Scott says.

But then he retired. She started feeling a different kind of discrimination. She was the only woman in her group. There was “a lot of bullying, constant harassment, and discrimination,” she says. Today, she calls it misogyny. So “I had to keep a low profile and try [to] keep going, but it was hard,” she says. “It stopped my research enthusiasm and opportunities.”

Saidani-Scott has since won a permanent position, but she still doesn’t feel that she gets the same treatment as her male colleagues. When she applied for her lectureship, two positions were available. “One person”–male–“got the full [lectureship] and the other person, also a woman, applied for half because she had children,” she says. Saidani-Scott was offered the other half. Today, as a senior lecturer (though still part-time), she still occasionally feels and witnesses the sting of discriminatory biases. As an equal-opportunity adviser at her university and a local coordinator for the U.K. Women’s Engineering Society, she is now in a position to take a more active role in fighting discrimination.

Persistent biases

Since Saidani-Scott’s early troubles, European countries have put tougher laws in place against gender and ethnic discrimination in education and employment. Yet, says Ouali, in many European countries, universities “are not encouraged to develop specific policies to open the Ph.D. to ethnic minority students or the recruitment of staff.”

Combine the two categories–ethnic minorities and women–and you have a population that has been ignored almost completely. A 2007 European Commission–funded report put together by a network of social researchers in Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom found that black, migrant, and ethnic minority women scientists were underrepresented in all seven countries. The Network on Ethnicity and Women Scientists (NEWS) found that minority women are usually confined to fixed-term or part-time positions. “There is a glass ceiling which doesn’t enable them to reach high positions in academic and research institutions,” says Ouali, who acted as the NEWS coordinator.

Minority women have to fight two sets of stereotypes and biases: gender-based and ethnic. Women descended from Moroccan migrants in Belgium, for example, are “questioned on their origins, their name, their appearance, their skin, all the time,” says Ouali, herself a Belgian national with Moroccan origins. “During all the course of their studies, they face racism and discrimination.” But even those who manage to avoid such overt discrimination like Saidani-Scott experienced may find themselves at a disadvantage. Because minority women are few and rarely have established networks, they often aren’t informed about new calls for grant applications, new positions, and recruitment and promotion procedures, Ouali says.

In principle, European academic institutions “all respect equal treatment and equal opportunities for women and minorities,” Ouali says. But as the NEWS report shows, “if you analyze, for example, recruitment practices, you can see that there are many” that lack transparency or favor predetermined candidates. When that happens, it’s “completely impossible for a minority or a woman from an ethnic minority to get this job,” Ouali says.

Not open for discussion

Making it even more difficult for minority women in Europe is the sensitivity and taboo that surround discrimination and ethnic-minority issues. “The pervasive reluctance of academics to discuss the lived realities of race and racism (which, unlike gender, still retain a nasty undertone) also serves to exert pressure on black academics to remain silent about institutional racism and discrimination,” University of Warwick social scientist Cecily Jones wrote recently in a research paper.

Two countries–the United Kingdom and the Netherlands–seem to be leading the way in their efforts to promote women and, more recently, ethnic minority scientists, the NEWS report indicates. Following the issue of the Race Relations Amendment Act in 2000, universities in the United Kingdom are required to design policies for racial equality and monitor their progress. In 2003, the U.K. government issued its Strategy for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and subsequently set up the U.K. Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. Several networks of minority scientists have emerged, including EquiNet and the African and Caribbean Network for Science and Technology (for U.K. residents).

In 1999, NWO launched the Aspasia funding program to help women climb the academic career ladder. In 2004, NWO created the Mosaic program to encourage minority students to pursue Ph.D.s. Just applying for Mosaic helps: “You learn how to write, defend, and present a grant proposal, and how to present yourself to a jury, and to be confident,” says Angela Sarabdjitsingh, a final-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at the University of Leiden who is Dutch with Surinamese-Hindu origins. Sarabdjitsingh says she hasn’t experienced discrimination for her gender or ethnicity. Still, she expects that her Mosaic award, together with another she received from the Dutch ECHO Foundation, will “open doors much more easily in the future and will definitely help [me] to advance in my career.”

Braving the odds

One of the most important factors for any scientist in training, and for minority women in particular, is to choose an appropriate lab. “Find out about the group first,” Saidani-Scott advises. Go there, ask the students about their supervisor, and look at the gender balance. There really isn’t any point in working “with the best researcher in the world if he isn’t going to help you.” Then, if you realize you’ve landed in the wrong place, you’ve got a few months to try to change to a new group, she says.

Also important: “Don’t stay isolated.” Find out what support your institution can offer you. Try to connect with senior colleagues in other groups or enter a mentoring program. Minority women scientist networks are scarce, so enter broader social and professional networks that can support you in your career, Ouali says.

Know your rights and tackle problems as they emerge, Saidani-Scott says: “If it’s discrimination, segregation, harassment, just complain about it right at the beginning.” Direct confrontation and formal complaint may be the best options–but sometimes they aren’t. Someone in a position of authority may be able to advise you or intervene for you, like Saidani-Scott now sometimes does. In any case, “you must act, not let it slip, … because after that it will take a lot of your energy,” she says.

Above all, minority women “have to be determined” to succeed, Ouali says. They have to also remain positive. Discrimination “gets you stronger because you learn from it,” Saidani-Scott says. Despite her struggles, she emphasizes that she doesn’t want her message to seem “too pessimistic or depressing for other women who are thinking of going into engineering or into science-related subjects. I just want them to know that there are obstructive people out there who will try their best to bully them, harass them, … but they should never give up.”

“I always say to myself, ‘I am lucky,’ ” says Saidani-Scott. “I studied. I work in a subject that I like. … I’ve made [it] because I worked very hard. I am not going to spoil it now.”

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