A bit outside Lisbon is the small town of Oieras, where many of the large research institutes are situated. After a hectic week Mariana Pinho receives us at Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica (IBTQ), the Lisbon University institute for chemical engineering and biology. Later the same day she will be on her way to participate in the popular science venture “Researcher’s Friday” and that is why there are plates with bacteria cultivations on her desk.
A group and family of her own
After her post-doctorate in Oxford Mariana Pinho established her research group. She got research funding for young scientists from the European Research Council, ERC, which facilitated the process a lot. She managed to identify an area of research that is interesting but not very populated.
“You cannot count on remaining alone, at least not if it is something interesting. But I was the first and am consequently a given name in the field, which is important.”
Mariana Pinho’s husband is also a scientist and they have three daughters. They both have flexible working hours and understands each other fully when it comes to what the life as a scientist requires, like long days and even nights. Their first child was born at the end of Mariana Pinho’s time as a PhD student, back then her husband could finish some experiments. Their second child was born in Oxford during her post-doctorate.
“We worked shifts to take care of the children. We still do that when one of them gets ill,” she explains.
When the third child came she had become a group leader, and she alternated between parental leave and part time work.
The crisis affects all
The Portuguese society supports women who want to work. Childcare is available from an early age and it is accepted to leave the children and work. But Mariana Pinho points out that you have to have two incomes as a family in Portugal, otherwise you cannot get by financially.
The financial crisis struck hard at the research and during the worst period – in 2008 – there were not even any announcements. Today Portugal is still fairly dependent on EU funding for research.
The funding runs for longer periods than the Portuguese research grants, which makes it easier to plan. And the funding decisions take parental leave into account as well.
More women in research
She explains that more than half of the people working at the institute are women, in all positions. In the board and on the committees the rate might be a tad lower, but she speculates that it can be due to fewer women wanting those positions. If that is the case it should not be forced, she thinks.
“Since there already are so many women in the system, more women are coming here.”
“No quotas system is needed and I am against it. The same thing goes for grants directed at women. As soon as something special is announced and directed at a certain group it leads to devaluation,” Mariana Pinho points out.
The high rate of women in the natural sciences could, according to her, be due to that the men are more inclined to change into a more financially rewarding career as physicians or in the industry.
Role model at home and at the lab
Her daughters think it is cool that their mother is a successful scientist and Mariana Pinho is pleased to be a role model for her children. At the lab she tries to support PhD students and post-docs getting pregnant. Most worry about how they are going to combine research and family.
“I tell them they are going to make it. Life is not just about science; the family is an important part. When someone asks me what I like to do when I am not working I answer: to be a mother. I really like it and it is important to me.”
The same opportunities is not a matter of course
Some ways from IBTQ is another institute for biology research, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC). Karina Xavier came here in 2006 after postdoctoral work in Princeton, USA.
“It was a deliberate choice to come back. Portugal is a good country for a family, the system is much more supportive. Not just in research, but the society as a whole, there are women in all professions,” Karina Xavier says.
She grew up believing strongly that she has exactly the same opportunities as her brother.
“I see it in a more nuanced way today. I have never felt discriminated, but from colleagues in other European countries I have seen that the situation can be quite different. The contact with scientists from Germany and Switzerland was something of an eye-opener,” she says.
The birth of her first child was an eye-opener as well. She mentions the strains of pregnancy, breast-feeding, and too little sleep as factors that got her to wonder how to get her life together.
“But that phase will pass and it is possible to come back again afterwards.”
She talks more about possible obstacles.
“The childcare can be quite expensive until the child is three years of age. But even those years pass quickly and it is important to think in a longer perspective. The children grow up and what will you do then? Sit at home the whole day?”
Karina Xavier likes to do research and work, but it concerns much more than her own interests.
“Equal families give equal possibilities for the children. Working mothers with a good education can help their children with their schoolwork in a totally different way and can give advice before various subject choices at school, or later on, in the career.
Most activities for the children are within the school and that facilitates a lot. Karina Xavier compares with the USA, where both her boys were born.
“There, you are much more dependent on the help of friends or neighbours.”
Karina Xavier has two concrete advices to young female scientists.
“Identify and invest in something you like. It is easier to fund the energy to make it work and to find a good balance in life. And choose the right partner. My husband thinks my career is just as important as his own.”