Corinne Aubert

Corinne Aubert

First Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Sorbonne University

Diversity is a strength for scientific research.

On the occasion of International Women's Rights Day, Corinne Aubert, former Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, shares her vision, her experience, the progress made and the challenges still to be met in terms of gender equality.

Can you share your views on the evolution of women's representation in science over time?

Corinne Aubert: Between 1992 and 2021, the proportion of women professors in universities rose from 12% to 29%, and that of women associate professors from 35% to 45%, all disciplines combined, according to figures from the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MESRI). These significant advances are due in particular to MESRI's efforts to promote greater parity in university governing bodies and in the recruitment of teaching and research staff.

Although the representation of women in the sciences has improved, the situation is not yet fully resolved, as the rate of progress between 2019 and today is more moderate. As for research support positions, while women account for 63% of administrative and management positions, they represent only 39% of research engineer positions, a percentage similar to that observed among teacher-researchers.

How does Sorbonne Université fit into this dynamic?

C.A.: Our university is no exception. But for the first time in its history, Sorbonne Université has the good fortune to be presided over by a woman, Nathalie Drach-Temam. This is a strong signal in terms of gender equality. We also have a very active mission dedicated to this issue. A great deal of work has been undertaken to ensure that selection committees have equal representation when it comes to competitive examinations and recruitment.

Are there differences between scientific disciplines?

C.A.: I'm a chemist and chemistry has rather good percentages, with more than half of positions held by women (56% in 2016), but in the middle range with 38.4% of tenured female academic researchers.

However, the "harder" the sciences get, the lower the proportion of women. In computer science, only 24.5% of academic researchers are women, and this figure drops to 13.8% in mathematics. These percentages are alarming, as these disciplines represent the world of tomorrow, and the absence of women in these fields could perpetuate their invisibilization in the scientific world.

And what about at different levels of education or responsibility?

C.A.: While France has more female graduates than male graduates up to baccalaureate +5, the "leaky pipeline" syndrome begins between the master's and doctorate levels, where the proportion of female doctorates falls to just 46%. And the higher the level of responsibility, the fewer women there are. The drain is particularly seen in the transition between associate professors and professors.

What are the main obstacles facing women in their scientific careers?

C.A.: The challenges are multiple. Firstly, the persistence of stereotypes remains a major obstacle, particularly in selection committees. For equal applications, some juries continue to describe a male researcher as "creative" or "brilliant", while a female researcher will be described as "serious" and "square". These educational biases are still too widespread. I've heard discriminatory comments like: "She's 30, she's going to have a child", which reinforce gender stereotypes. What's more, comments that would never be made about a man can be made about a woman. I've experienced this myself in my career.

Added to this is the male "entre-soi" (staying with one's own) which can lead to the involuntary exclusion of women from the professional network, thus limiting their opportunities for advancement, or even the reconciliation of professional and private life. Even if men are more involved in family life than they used to be, women still bear the predominant burden of domestic work.

What do you think is the impact of self-censorship among women scientists?

C.A.: Women's self-censorship is a major challenge, often rooted in upbringing. A study has shown that a woman will only apply for a job if she meets at least 75% of the criteria, whereas a man will only apply if he meets 50% of the criteria. In this respect, I agree with the Minister, Sylvie Retailleau, who said in an interview: "We are taught that men are capable, and that women must deserve". A survey by the Research Chair on Young People’s Interest in Science and Technology  in 2015, moreover, revealed that girls tend to perceive themselves as less gifted, despite performing better than boys. The phenomenon of self-censorship leads them to abandon their scientific aspirations more quickly, and persists throughout their careers.

What can we do about it?

C.A.: There is no single solution. Firstly, I support the idea of quotas. It's crucial to ensure equal representation of women in all selection processes. This must be a priority. In some areas, we could even envisage positive discrimination, particularly in competitive examinations where a choice has to be made between a woman and a man of equal competence.

What's more, it's imperative to encourage our female colleagues to defend their applications for promotions and positions, and to seize opportunities without succumbing to self-deprecation. It's essential to break down the preconceived notion that a male colleague is systematically better, or that a woman should choose between her family life and her career.

Education and awareness-raising play a key role. We need to combat stereotypes right from the hiring process, by making juries aware of the unconscious biases that persist in these contexts.

How can female role models influence the careers of young researchers? Do you have any examples of women who have inspired you?

C.A.: From an early age, gender stereotypes hinder women's aspirations in science. Female role models play a crucial role in broadening horizons and inspiring future generations. We need to start early. Associations such as "Femmes & Sciences" carry out a variety of actions to combat preconceived ideas about studies and guidance for girls and boys.

Personally, my mother instilled in me at a very early age that studying was the key to independence. Then I was lucky enough to work in a laboratory run by a woman with a strong personality, a free, independent woman who went abroad to work.  She encouraged me to do a post-doctorate at a time when this was still uncommon. Her example inspired me and showed me that it was possible.

As a researcher and former dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, do you think your career path can serve as a role model for young women?

C.A.: After joining the CNRS, my scientific career evolved in the classic way, moving up through the ranks at the Institut Parisien de Chimie Moléculaire (IPCM), a very dynamic laboratory at our university. Over time, I became increasingly involved in research management and collective responsibilities, while maintaining a balance between research and these activities. As Director of the IPCM and head of the MiChem laboratory of excellence, I have also been heavily involved in university affairs. Elected dean of Sorbonne Université's Faculty of Science and Engineering, I took up my post in January 2018, believing that my experience could serve my university well.

I don't claim to be a role model. I didn't have a career plan. I evolved out of opportunity, not opportunism. But I think my attitudes, my actions and my career path can help some women to do the same to break the glass ceiling.

Why is the representation of women crucial to scientific research?

C.A.: Diversity is a strength for scientific research. It brings varied perspectives, different approaches to thinking and a richness that stimulates innovation. Women, as members of the scientific community, help to broaden the field of possibilities, improve the quality of research, and diversify viewpoints and experiences to tackle problems from multiple angles. Ignoring the role of women in science means potentially overlooking innovative ideas in the service of complex challenges.