By Lucila Sigal
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Latin America's female scientists and researchers are packing a big punch despite a hard-to-break glass ceiling for top roles in academia and business, reflecting how women are on the march in a region often seen as a bastion of macho male culture.
A report by UNESCO and UN Women shows they account for 45% of female researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with around 29% globally, the highest anywhere in the world, although there are still gaps in some specialties.
"Women are advancing in careers that were previously very masculine or totally male-dominated," Gloria Bonder, director of the UNESCO Regional Chair for Women, Science and Technology in Latin America, told Reuters by telephone.
Latin America's women are soaring in the social and medical sciences, though they are less represented in some of the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics, considered key areas of future development.
"In mathematics we are almost half, in physics there are more men, but in biology there is a predominance of women," said Bonder. "Today women are aware and are in the fight to reverse these inequalities."
Obstacles, however, remain.
While more Latin American women graduate than men and there is almost parity of researchers, women account for only 18% of deans at public universities, and in the corporate sector, women account for just 27% of executives.
"This is an important issue because, in general, companies have higher salaries and offer other possibilities for professional development," Bonder said.
Many governments, universities and research institutes in the region have implemented programs in recent years to promote gender equality and prevent discrimination. But many women still face obstacles to advance in scientific careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has put a spotlight on the importance of scientific endeavor, has also sharpened challenges for women, including the complex juggling act of succeeding at work while often doing more childcare than male counterparts.
"I think that there's a glass ceiling created by motherhood and childcare tasks," said Silvina Sonzogni, 38, a graduate in genetics with a doctorate in biological chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires.
"The pandemic made it fully visible because we were all at home. A lot is being done to bridge that gap."
Experts say that more public policies, business incentives and changes in the education system are needed.
"We have to adapt the paths and opportunities we give to girls and women in their various spheres and in particular science, technology and innovation," said Lidia Brito, director of UNESCO Sciences for Latin America and the Caribbean.
"I am hopeful that we will continue to see the growth of women in sciences. This pandemic showed that we must have more scientists and excluding 50% of the population capable of being scientists is a problem," she said.
(Reporting by Lucila Sigal; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Dan Grebler)