Women and Research in Estonia | Gearing Roles
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Women and Research in Estonia

Male and Female Estonian Researchers or Simply Estonian Researchers?

Until relatively recently, this combination was seen as unusual. The situation has changed since then, but the linguistic difference remains. We have women scientists as opposed to scientists (not male scientists) and women writers as opposed to writers, but we also have actresses and actors. A play cannot really be performed without involving women, even though this was a common practice in the past. Research, however, has mostly been conducted without female involvement and the related decision-making power (management boards, councils and committees) was solely in the hands of men until fairly recently. Since the majority of the members of decision-making bodies (and not only of those that shape research development) belong to the older generation—and this is only natural, because experience matters—such favouritism of male researchers is still deeply rooted on an archetypal level. As a result, a typical question asked during the process of finding a head for a scientific laboratory (or even a lab involved with a soft discipline) is: don’t you have any good guys for this task?

I have been thinking about this topic for two or three months. Oddly enough, my thoughts are starting to move away from my initial intention to defend, justify and promote women scientists towards the problems and joys of the life of a researcher as such. If one were to conduct a SWOT analysis of a specific lab or field of research, which is essentially an interesting exercise in looking into a mirror, it would reveal that men and women tend to worry and rejoice about the same things. Unfortunately, the research career pyramid still displays a gender disparity: while the number of male and female doctoral students is equal in Estonia, the number of men increases as we move up the academic career ladder. In 2016, 33% of the assistants and teachers, 39% of lecturers and senior assistants, 51% of associate professors and 76% of professors at the University of Tartu were men. Decision-making bodies are still governed predominantly by men and this is not limited to technical fields.

What are these special circumstances that pose a greater obstruction to the work and career of Estonian women researchers compared to their male counterparts? One aspect is certainly the birth and raising of children, despite the fact that the Estonian society has clearly changed: young fathers walking on the streets with children in their arms or strapped to their chest, which has now become a relatively common and dignified sight, were hardly seen as recently as ten years ago. Still, in addition to pregnancy, giving birth and nursing, which are solely the joys and woes of women, mundane chores and most of the parenting are also delegated to women. This certainly applies to researchers from the middle and older generation. When a female researcher has several children, her career is bound to be put on hold several times, which may prove fatal to it. One cannot forget one highly significant stage of a career in science—postdoc studies at a renowned foreign laboratory. Half of today’s doctoral graduates are women. Finding a postdoc position if you happen to be a young woman with small children and want to keep your family together and children cared for, is extremely difficult, if not impossible. This poses further limits to young female PhD holders looking for career opportunities. Thus, women tend to have children (the importance of this is unquestioned) right when they should begin accelerating their research career and it is extremely difficult to find balance, as this requires support from both husbands and society and the existence of the respective national benefits, for instance, affordable day care. Otherwise, young talented science-minded women (with few exceptions) generally have to choose between two paths: home-husband-children or top-level research. It does not have to be like that. I shall hereby refer to the article “Global Gender Disparities in Science” published in Nature, which emphasises that No country can afford to neglect the intellectual contributions of half its population (1). At the same time, this problem is much deeper and not limited to research and Estonia.

Estonian research and Estonia 100

Estonia’s centenary was the most significant event in 2018. As a result, we have put many things in the historical perspective, thought them through and tried to discuss them. I am certain we all agree that life in Estonia is good and it is home to many wonderful people: women and men, grandmothers and grandfathers, girls and boys who all guarantee our sustainability. There has also been increasingly more talk about Estonian research, mainly of the difficulties of being a researcher and how they are not appreciated by the state. Indeed, in 2015, the state contributed 0.78% of the GDP to research and development activities, which was projected to reach 0.81% by 2018. Thus, increasing the expenditure on research and development to 1% of the country’s GDP by 2020, as set forth in the Estonian Research and Development and Innovation Strategy 2014–2020 (2) seems unrealistic. On the other hand, in her speech delivered in the Rose Garden of the presidential palace this year, our president highlighted the importance of research: “The rough draft of Estonia’s future that will hopefully start to be sketched in the upcoming political season desperately needs a scientific foundation as well as cultural and educational base, so that the superstructure of the three pillars—education, healthcare and social protection—meet the expectations of Estonians and support their dreams.”(2)

The current level of state funding of research and development, which allows to finance 14–28% of the projects submitted (in 2013–2018),(4) depending on the application round, and predominantly project-based funding does not even provide top-level researchers with financial security. In order to remain ‘fit’ for the application rounds that take place every five years, a researcher must be innovative and relatable, keep their finger on the pulse of current events and contribute. Additionally, they must be visible on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, ResearchGate, LinkedIn and god knows where. They must be familiar with the scene and maintain their reputation.

Perhaps you have been to a full-length concert of a world-famous popstar, which consists of their original songs? It is quite common that well-known melodies and hits form around 20% of the songs are performed in the course of several hours. Composing requires talent and inspiration. As a result, the vast majority of the discography of even the most talented musician consists of mediocre tracks. However, if they would not have been able to compose during creative slumps, we would not have immortal tracks either. If we return to research, this too is largely based on creative thinking, inspiration and talent. Project-based research funding assumes that each project for which a researcher submits an application is a hit and declared ‘outstanding’ by reviewers, because money is given to only such projects. Average projects that are deemed ‘good’ or ‘very good’ are left out. However, it is not possible to produce hits all the time. For researchers, funding is not only a question of feeding their ego: it is their income for the next five years and, in the case of researchers who are single parents, money to feed their child. For students, it is not only a question of wages, but also their future in the research field.

Do female researchers have to sacrifice too much for success?

I have had the honour of participating in several assessment committees in both Estonia and abroad. I can confirm that Estonian researchers are very good despite of the tight budgets of their projects and articles. Does this mean that Estonian researchers are significantly more efficient than their foreign colleagues (probably not) or that their achievements include something that does not really have a monetary value: time that could be used for hobbies, spending time with friends, partners, parents and children? It seems that women sacrifice more for strictly biological and, unfortunately, stereotypical reasons. At least this was the case with women of my generation. Fortunately, I can see that the situation is changing. My experience as the Estonian assessor for the L’Oreal grants for women in science in 2017 and 2018 showed that Estonia has a great many young and talented women scientists: both years produced around 30 applicants. There was an average of 28% of women among the candidates to the Estonian National Research Award in 2000–2018 (over 1,000 candidates in total)—over the years, this proportion varied from 15–41%. An average of 24% women received the award (6–47%). The proportion of women is even a little higher among the most cited Estonian researchers: the study conducted by academic Jüri Allik shows that from 2008 to 2018 (1st half), approximately a third of the 1% of most cited Estonian researchers were women(5) These are promising, encouraging numbers.

Let us start from the beginning. Let us begin from decision-making bodies. Why should more women be included in making (research) decisions?

Society consists of men and women in equal parts. Why should important decisions be made by bodies that do not consider this aspect?

It must be pointed out that the first steps towards change have already been taken. We have a female president, a number of female ministers and increasingly more women are elected to lead political parties. It is amazing to think that five-year-old girls can now grow up believing that being a president is a woman’s job.

Why do I support the equal or more equal representation of women and men in decision-making bodies (and not only those that concern research), which have thus far consisted predominantly of men?

  1. Women are decisive and (highly) educated. Therefore, let us not dismiss the intellectual potential of half of the members of society.
  2. Nowadays, at least a half of PhD students are women and the proportion of women at the bottom of the research career ladder is also high. Women see the aspects related to the home and children that cannot be removed from young women’s studies and work life more clearly. Thus, decisions will be fairer.
  3. Society needs more empathy. This quality is more prevalent among women. The reasons for this are purely biological. Thus, decisions will be more tolerant.
  4. Women’s self-preservation instinct is important to the society (from the evolutionary perspective, women can’t make rash decisions that endanger the lives of children). Thus, decisions will be more reasonable.

To conclude—let us celebrate variety and include men as well as women, the younger and the older, people from the exact sciences as well as the humanities in our decision-making. Only then we will be able to see the society as a whole and make the right decisions. I like that idea.

Anne Kahru is an Estonian researcher and academic who is known for her thoughts and statements on gender issues in research. The following article is based on to her article published in “Estonian Research 2019 (6) and introduces the current state of female researchers in Estonia.

Anne Kahru, PhD

Head of the laboratory of Environmental Toxicology

National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics,

Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

Translated by Scriba OÜ

1.Larivière, V., Ni, C., Cronin, B., Sugimoto C.R. (2013). Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science. Nature 504, pp. 211–213. − doi:10.1038/504211a (28.09.2018).

2. Ratas, J. (2017). Peaminister vastas arupärimisele teadus- ja arendustegevuse kulutuste kohta. Riigikogu, istungi ülevaated, 20.11.2017. Riigikogu. − (01.10.2018)

3. Kaljulaid, K. (2018). The President of the Republic at the reception commemorating the 27th anniversary of the restoration of independence. Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia, speeches, 20.08.2018 link (28.09.2018).

4. Konkurentsipõhised uurimistoetused. Eesti Teadusagentuur. − (01.10.2018)

5. Allik, J., Lauk, K. (2019). Eesti teaduse tervis 2018. – Eesti Teadus (ed. K. Raudvere) 2019. SA Eesti Teadusagentuur.

6. Kahru, A. (2019). Male and Female Estonian Researchers or Simply Estonian Researchers. – Estonian Research 2016, pp. 65-67. Estonian Research Council, Tartu.

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