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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter February 12, 2019

A brief overview on Brazilian women in chemistry

  • Natacha Carvalho Ferreira Santos , Marilia Valli EMAIL logo and Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani EMAIL logo


Women have achieved great advances standing up for themselves in the last 100 years. Many important women were essential for the development of science but only a few (5% from total awarded individuals) have won Nobel prizes for their work. In this brief contribution, we would like to show that gender equality is in process and highlight the gaps that still have to be addressed. We also give an overview of the Brazilian scenario on this matter. In many countries, such as Brazil, women are already half of the researchers in Chemistry, but their representation become scarcer as their career advances, in coordination and direction positions.


Since the celebration of the International Year of Chemistry in 2011 (IYC-2011), several international conferences caught our interest on the role of women in science. These events show a diverse panel, with protagonists from many countries and different ethnicities, but with one point in common, promoting gender equality. These women have managed to excel in a field of activity that is highly valued by society, in which men still predominate. The role of governments, international organizations and scientific associations committed to promoting and supporting initiatives are fundamental for leading to the change of social structures responsible for inequality between men and women in the field of education and science. Although women still face many barriers to get their professional achievements recognized, concrete advances were achieved in the last decades.

It is never too much to remember that the actual presence of women in the area of science is, in historical terms, very recent, dating back only a century or so. This inclusion demanded courage and a lot of perseverance of the pioneers to confront tradition. The case of greater visibility and impact is undoubtedly that of Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867–1934), the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) and the first scientist to receive the award twice. She was Polish, living in a period when her country was under the domination of the Russian empire [1]. Marie Curie built her trajectory with admirable tenacity, and was the first woman to receive a PhD from a French university, as well as the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. She was able to circumvent the prohibitions of higher education for women in the context of that time, and managed to articulate her trip to Paris where, years later, she was inserted in the scientific groups that carried out the most advanced research in Physics and Chemistry in Europe, and in the world. The recognition of her scientific work unveiled a new area of knowledge, the radiochemistry [1]. The example of Marie Curie inspired thousands of women chemists, including the authors of this text. Evidently, she will continue to be an inspiration for young women to follow a scientific career.

The example of Marie Curie and other pioneers at the time of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century paved the way for the struggle to reduce inequality between men and women in science. Among these pioneers was also Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), an English researcher in the field of biophysics whose studies on X-ray diffraction contributed to the determination of the structure of DNA. Furthermore, we must recognize the contribution of the English Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910–1994), a biochemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for her work in the field of X-ray crystallography, a knowledge that became widely used and provided a tool, among other advances, for the discovery of the structure of insulin [1].

Among the 892 individuals that were awarded with Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2017, only 48 (5.4%) were women. In the area of Chemistry only four women (2.3%) were awarded from a total of 177 individuals. Women are a great minority in this important award, as shown in Fig. 1 [2].

Fig. 1: All Nobel Prizes awarded, by field and gender.
Fig. 1:

All Nobel Prizes awarded, by field and gender.

The number of creative, talented, and successful female scientists has grown throughout the twentieth century and has built a new way of thinking for men and women in place of “tradition.” Nevertheless, this change is still in process and it did not mean equal participation of women in the middle and upper career positions and, especially, in management positions. The phenomenon of underrepresentation of women in scientific careers and, in general, in the field known as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is present even in countries of advanced economies and remains a challenge for education and public policies. Girls tend to achieve higher school grades than boys, even in STEM and non-STEM subjects. A variability hypothesis states that because boys have a greater variance in grades, the numbers end up greater of men with exceptional ability, but a recent study showed that this is insufficient to explain the over-representation of men in STEM [3]. The shaped traditions of gender in society appear to have a greater effect than school grades in the choice of career. The backlash effect is still a contribution for girls avoiding a STEM career, and to increase their number, these areas should be made more attractive for them.

Although many countries have a balance in the proportions of male and female as undergraduates and graduate students, there are still fewer women as full professors. Women also participate less in collaborations leading to publications, are less prone to be first author and even less probable for being last author of a paper [4]. It has been harder for women to have their achievements recognized. It is common (more common that it happens to men) that other people recognize their boss or supervisor for a woman scientist’s success [5].

A recent study aiming at assessing the state of gender equality in high-quality research was performed with 293 557 research articles from 54 journals listed in the Nature Index in the categories Life Science, Multidisciplinary, Earth and Environmental and Chemistry [6]. The proportion of female of all authorships is 29.8%, when 39% of authors are female, showing that women publish fewer articles than men do. The authors also used an approach for assessing the career status of women by quantifying in these articles the proportion of females as first authors (usually early career researches), co-authors (minor contributions to the work), and last authors (usually senior researchers). The proportion of females diminishes from first (33.1%) to last authorships (18.1%). The analysis led to the conclusion that there are few prestigious women authorships, even with a small increase of women in science in the years 2008–2016. This inequality shows a known phenomenon, the leaky pipeline [5], that although women may be better represented in the low hierarchical levels (as first- or coauthors for example), they become scarcer as group leaders (as last-authors). Although there were many advances in this question, the statistic data presented in this article reveled that women are still underrepresented in science. The imbalance between men and women in science are present in all continents. The authors emphasized that Poland, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, Russia, Czech Republic and Japan have critical indexes [6].

Female researchers are less invited (29%) to take part in peer review in a study with journals of the American Geophysical Union [7]. Review of papers by peers is an opportunity to view unpublished science, and is an important experience to improve communication and network, fostering most respectful positions and self-confidence. A recent study assessed number of self-citations using a data set of 1.5 million research papers in JSTOR Database (1779–2011). The authors found that men did 56% more self-citations, and considering only the last 20 years the number rose to 70%. This difference might be a consequence for men publishing more papers and therefore having more papers to cite. Nevertheless, the disproportion has risen in time, which might have implications for visibility and career [8].

The comprehensive and detailed report by the scientific publisher Elsevier, “Gender in the global research landscape” (2017) shows the gains registered in the last twenty years in a set of 12 countries/regions (United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Brazil, Japan, Denmark, Portugal, Mexico and Chile) in 27 areas of knowledge [9]. The report shows that all countries evaluated except Japan (20%), Mexico (38%) and Chile (38%) have reached since 2015 a gender balance for number of researchers, which is considered as such when women make up 40–60%. Nevertheless all countries have the proportion augmented for women since 1996. In the area of Chemistry, Portugal and Brazil have the best projections, with good gender equality in number of researchers. Brazil and Portugal are particularly noteworthy for reaching gender parity among researchers, where women constitute 49% of the researcher population for both countries [9]. Even if the 2017 Elsevier report shows some gender advances for female scientists, in his recently article, Bendels et al. [6] discussed the unequal academic prestige of male and female and the different impacts research performed for both. The disparity between women and men in several countries still leave us in very vulnerable position, and it is important to highlight that women continue underrepresented, when the analysis is based on the academic prestige all over the world. It is interesting to note that scientific discrimination of women is also associated to the economics and social development of the nations. Developed countries have more women with a high number of citations than those in developing nations, and thus, Brazil still is in an unfavorable position [10].

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly prepared a historic and visionary report pointing out several assumptions for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The sustainability of the world depends on the capacity of states to put science at the heart of their national strategies for development and has a critical discussion on the discrimination of gender in science. The IUPAC was created in 1919 for advancing the worldwide role of chemistry, and will celebrate in 2019 its centenary. In almost 100 years, only two women were president of this internationally recognized scientific association namely Professor Nicole Moreau (2010–2011) and Natalia Tarasova (2014–2015). In 2011, IUPAC and UNESCO initiative culminated with the worldwide celebration of the International Year of Chemistry – IYA 2011 [11], which celebrated the chemistry achievements and its contributions to humankind. The year 2011 also coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Marie Curie, and was an excellent opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science. At that time, IUPAC also created the “Distinguished Women in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering” Award, and 23 scientists of the five continents, including the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry of 2009, Ada Yonath were honored. Since then, every two years IUPAC has awarded outstanding women in chemistry science. Brazilian women received two of these awards, Prof. Yvonne Mascarenhas, in 2017 due to her research in condensed matter physics, and determination of molecular structures by X-ray diffraction and Vanderlan da S. Bolzani, in 2011 researching Natural Products Chemistry.

Brazilian scenario for women in education, science and chemistry

Brazil has a population of ca. 208 million being around 51% women [12]. This country has a GDP of $15 225/capita (2016) [13] and is the main economy of South America. In Brazil, unequal representation of women has been rapidly changing at the base of the educational pyramid. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) the panorama is favorable, meaning good gender equality. In 2018 the fraction of women (16.9%) with a higher education degree is higher than that of men (13.5%). In addition, women (29.9%) represent a slightly larger fraction than men do (29.6%) graduating from high school [14]. The literacy rate is also slightly higher for women (99.4%) than for men (98.7%) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Percentage of women/men in Brazil at the base of the educational pyramid according to IBGE [14].
Fig. 2:

Percentage of women/men in Brazil at the base of the educational pyramid according to IBGE [14].

An overview of women in Brazilian science may be a good indicator for a broader analysis of South America, considering its territorial and economic importance. Brazil has an area of 8 516 000 km2, is the largest country in South America, with land borders with all the countries of South America, except Ecuador and Chile. In addition to its territorial dimension, it is the 8th economy in the world, accounting for a GDP of 2 trillions of dollars and participation of 2.5% in the world GDP [15]. Thus, to be invited to write this article is an excellent opportunity to reflect upon our role as women scientists throughout the evolution of science in Brazil. This text gives a brief overview of the role of women in science, and in the local context of Brazilian chemists, showing some recent statistical data.

The numerical break-even point for the gender of researchers registered at CNPq (Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) was reached in 2010, when the 128 600 researchers in the database were equally divided between men and women. Also in that year, the number of women (52%) surpassed that of men (48%) as leaders of research groups registered with CNPq. The CNPq productivity grants (PQ) are considered a prize for academic merit in Brazil, and shows that in 2018, there were 706 grants, 209 for women (30%). There is a crescent academic quality level of PQ grants, starting from level 2 (beginning of career) to level 1A (outstanding researchers) and the highest level “Senior” (SR). It is quite obvious in Fig. 3a that the higher the level the fewer women there are and even in the first level, only 34% are women. The small percentage at this highly competitive level demonstrates that the academic merit of Brazilian women scientists is still much underrepresented [16].

Fig. 3: Proportion of women/men researchers in Brazil [16]. (a) Number of researchers in the main fields of chemistry; (b) researchers awarded with CNPq productivity grants (PQ) in 2018 (proportion); (c) researchers in Chemistry by regions (absolute numbers).
Fig. 3:

Proportion of women/men researchers in Brazil [16]. (a) Number of researchers in the main fields of chemistry; (b) researchers awarded with CNPq productivity grants (PQ) in 2018 (proportion); (c) researchers in Chemistry by regions (absolute numbers).

When searching at specific areas of knowledge, areas “traditionally” considered as for male or female continue to have a strongly unequal distribution profile. For example, in the agricultural sciences this proportion is 74% (men) and 36% (women); in exact and earth sciences, which includes physics, chemistry and mathematics, 68% (men) and 32% (women); engineering, 71% (men) and 39% (women). In the areas of chemistry there is small difference from 25% of women in Physical Chemistry to 34% in Inorganic Chemistry (Fig. 3b).

Other important data to be considered in gender disparity in Brazil is the socioeconomic differences between the five regions of this huge country. The Brazilian geopolitical distribution is another factor of discrimination of women in science. According to Fig. 3c showing the numbers of women in chemistry distributed by regions, the numbers vary considerably accounting of 25% in Central-West, 26% in the South, 29% in South East, 38% in the North East and 9% of women in the North region (Fig. 3c). The minor percentage of woman in science in the North of Brazil, shows the tremendous disparity of gender related to the economics and social questions, and it can be considered to the public decisions in Brazil for Amazonian region.

Another interesting feature to reveal how women are underrepresented in the top of their scientific professional carriers in Brazil can bee seen by the members of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) Table 1. This centenary scientific association constituted of 485 men and 81 women scientists. In the 21st century, with all advances we have in the gender question, to have only 15% of academics’ women in Brazil, it is obviously that we have a long way of work for women scientists of great talent in Brazil to be recognized. The ABC young affiliated is also a great honor for the recognition of young male and female scientists, and the disproportion point out for only 22% of young women. The Brazilian statistical data follows those observed for the world women in science displayed by UNESCO, which is around 28.8%.

Table 1:

Total of affiliated academics and with a permanent position at Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC).

Academic permanent position81 (15%)468 (85%)
Affiliated academics31 (22%)109 (78%)

Women in natural products chemistry (Brazil)

The evolution of humankind has been based on the interaction and the use of natural products from biodiversity. The use of biodiversity, particularly of natural products, identified from thousands of plants species and other organisms, provided a powerful source of food supplements, medicines and cosmetics, essential for human survival until nowadays. Taking this into account, Brazil is a country with the largest biodiversity in the world, with ca. of 20% of all living species in the planet. Thus, this rich chemical diversity can bring not only new knowledge of these unexplored resources, but is full of opportunities for bio-based innovation.

The research of natural products from Brazilian biodiversity has become a potential area for Brazilian women chemists and close research areas. However, even in this research area, women researchers are underrepresented in PQ higher levels, as indicated in the Fig. 4a. At the 1A there are only two female scientists, both from the same research group, NuBBE, in the state of Sao Paulo, South East region. The distribution of natural products women researchers by region also show great disparity of male and female proportions, with all regions being underrepresented by women also in the South East. These data show chemistry but also in the South East, considered the most developed and productive region of Brazil, Fig. 4b.

Fig. 4: Number of women/men as researchers in the natural products area in Brazil (a) by PQ level; (b) by region [16].
Fig. 4:

Number of women/men as researchers in the natural products area in Brazil (a) by PQ level; (b) by region [16].

Women are not represented equally in several other research fields of science as skilled workers, professionals or decision-makers. The numbers to assess this reality are scarcer for women when it comes to management posts, grant coordinators and heads of Universities. The long-term projects are awarded to high quality researchers and have a coordinator responsible for leading the project. These category of projects funded by the National Institute of Science and Technology (INCT) in Brazil, from the 125 projects that have been approved, 108 (86.4%) are coordinated by men, and only 17 (13.6%) are coordinated by women. From the 17 CEPID projects funded by the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) only three are coordinated by women.


There is no doubt that actions that increase women’s participation in scientific activity should generate substantive gains in the coming years. As career advice we strongly counsel women to believe in themselves as equal as any other in society and believe that their work matters for science and society. Women should stand up against discrimination and confront misconceptions and gender traditions. In addition, while women are still minority in some areas, this could be an opportunity to bring different views, perspectives and give useful contributions. An effective way of promoting gender equality is governments to implement laws to decrease the disparities of time taken to take care of infants. The gender in the global research landscape points that Brazil has achieved noteworthy numbers for gender parity among researchers, where women constitute half of the researcher population. Nevertheless, there is still much to achieve regarding career advancement. Although women are fairly well represented in chemistry and related eras of investigation, as health, agriculture and environmental management, they are great minority in other fields. It will be vital for the transition to sustainable development, such as energy, engineering, transportation, information technology and computing – the latter being important for warning systems, information-sharing and environmental monitoring.

Award Identifier / Grant number: #2013/07600-3 (CIBFar-CEPID)

Award Identifier / Grant number: #2014/50926-0 (INCT BioNat CNPq/FAPESP)

Funding statement: The authors acknowledge Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP), Funder Id: 10.13039/501100001807, grants #2013/07600-3 (CIBFar-CEPID), #2014/50926-0 (INCT BioNat CNPq/FAPESP), Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) grant, Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES), and Termo de Execução Descentralizado Arbocontrol #74/2016 for grant support and research fellowships. MV acknowledges scholarships #167874/2014-4 and #152243/2016-0 (CNPq) and #120/2017(Finatec).


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Article note

A special collection of invited papers by recipients of the IUPAC Distinguished Women in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Awards.

Published Online: 2019-02-12
Published in Print: 2019-04-24

©2019 IUPAC & De Gruyter. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For more information, please visit:

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