ZILDA CARVALHO (1938-1995)

In memoriam




Zilda Carvalho passed away on October 13, 1995. A virologist, she was co-founder and one of the most active members of OTC, the Portuguese Organization of Scientific Workers, for two decades. She made a manifold contribution to the animation of the activities of OTC on several important fronts of work. Her contribution to the establishment and consolidation of work partnerships in the international arena was particularly remarkable. She was elected as Chairperson of the Women’s Committee of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, the praised international non-governmental organization to which OTC became affiliated in 1979. At home, in his native country, she was particularly interested in assessing working conditions and hurdles standing in the way of women scientists’ professional careers. She was particularly gifted to mediate differences of posture and opinions among peers and she will as well be remembered for that. She graduated cum laude in Biomedicine, in the University of Oporto, in 1988. Zilda Carvalho was a member of the research staff of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science from 1969 until her death.

We reproduce below the paper Zilda Carvalho presented at the World Federation of Scientific Workers International Symposium on “A New World Scientific and Technological Order” held in Dakar, Senegal, in November 1992.


Women's involvement in the new world scientific and technological order

Paper presented at the international symposium on'A New World Scientific and Technological Order' held in Dakar, Senegal, from 9 to 11 November 1992. Dr Carvalho works at the Institute Gulbenkian de Ciencia in Portugal and belongs to the Organizagao dos Trabalhadores Cientificos. She chairs the WFSW's women's committee.

Zilda G Carvalho


Can we envisage a new world order for science and technology without involving women, and women scientists especially? Looking at this gathering, and excluding the colleagues from our Madagascar affili­ate, whom I'm pleased to greet, one is inclined to say yes, as it would appear that their points of view and concerns are compatible with those of the scientific community as a whole, meaning that their contribu­tion is not indispensable.



 It would clearly be unfair to conclude that the composition of this gathering reflects an attitude of indifference, still less of discrimination, towards women and the contribution that they can make to the discussion of the highly important topics with which we are concerned here. Likewise it would be unfair to conclude that women are not interested in these questions. Their feeble representation here, as at other international gatherings, reflects a particular objective reality that needs to be analyzed in terms of the questions I asked initially.

I want to try to show that the answer to this ques­tion is that women's involvement is indeed indispens­able and that this problem concerns all of us, men and women, who want to see a new order in a new world.

From its beginning the United Nations included among its basic aims access to the benefits of science and technology for all the peoples of the world and improvements in the status of women. This was envisaged as resulting from measures especially tar­geted at women in the framework of the overall progress of each society.

It became clear in the '70s, however, that social and economic development was advancing very slowly and that women had benefited less than men. We became aware of the fact that "the role of women is much more than that of the mother who is the pas­sive beneficiary of development and social legislation as they also contribute to the economy, indeed their contribution is essential"1. Increasingly development programmes and proposals aimed at the global prob­lems associated with development, such as peace, over-population, health and the environment, have sought to integrate women as a social group having their own needs and aspirations.

By way of illustration, let us take the environment question, a basic concern everywhere these days, being firmly wedded to development, as everyone knows although some pretend not to recognise this. In most developing countries women are not only direct consumers of basic natural resources, water, food and domestic fuel, but they are also direct agents in the processes of production and transformation. Traditionally they have doled out these resources with efficiency and are the first to suffer from deserti­fication, deforestation and air and water pollution. Often blamed for the deterioration of the environ­ment, they are in fact victims of a vicious circle which, apart from other factors, leads to the destruc­tion of forests and of traditional crops, replacing them with the cash crops needed to finance the crushing burden of external debt. When men have been trained in new agricultural techniques, their introduction means that women are ousted from the process of production and so see their output and status decline.

Other equally eloquent examples could be given in relation to peace, health and population.

What is needed to change this state of affairs is not only the active involvement of women in making changes but that they should have the means and the knowledge to take part in decision-making at all lev­els. Women must be able to play their full part in the political, social and cultural life of our societies and especially, this being our particular concern, in the scientific and technological world. It can be said that these days such involvement is more than a right: it is an urgent necessity.

Since the beginning of the century, and especially in recent decades, women's movements, particularly in the developed countries, have carried on a coura-­geous struggle, often misunderstood, against traditions and prejudices that saw science and technology as areas reserved for men. No one today would dare repeat, at least not publicly, the observation of the great physicist Max Planck that "(...) nature having dic­tated women's functions as mothers and housewives, ignoring the laws of nature would cause serious harm which ... would be especially evident in the next generation"2.

But progress has been slow and irregular, even sus­taining reverses as a result of the far-reaching eco­nomic and social crises which the world has experienced in recent years. The fact remains that today, in every country without exception, women are under-represented in science and technology. To give one example: in Canada in 1990 there were 54 women lecturers in all the engineering faculties put together, amounting to 2% of the teaching staff 3. There are some variations from one country to another, depending on their history, culture and tra­ditions. In the developed countries although the number of young women and young men in higher education are about equal and a good many of the young women study the sciences, the proportion continuously declines as one goes up the scientific career ladder4. It is what some call the 'glass ceiling', a barrier that is not always visible but which bars women from equal representation in science and technology.

In a recently published article in the American Scientist 5Stephen Brush identified some of the factors responsible for this 'glass ceiling', such as education, social stereotyping, sexism whether hidden or overt, family obligations and fierce competition. These obstacles are difficult to overcome and either block women's access to a scientific or technological career or discourage them from continuing.

In the developing countries the situation is still more difficult in that many women, if not the major­ity, have no access to education. In many countries, however, major efforts have been made to increase the number of young women gaining qualifications in science and technology. Ghana, mentioned earlier, is an example.

In the former socialist countries, which were in the forefront in involving women in political, social and scientific life, available figures indicate an increas­ing decline in their numbers. Ironically, or hypocriti­cally, there are some people who welcome this decline, arguing that it is a reaction to a state-imposed policy. At the same time there are calls in many capi­talist countries and even in international bodies for quotas to ensure women's representation in parlia­ments, political parties and leading scientific bodies.

Some disturbing developments have been observed in recent years. It is true that in order to cope with periods of revival in the world economy, governments, especially in the developed countries, have launched programmes to attract more women into science and technology, as a response to the shortage of qualified personnel caused by a lower birth rate. However, women in these professions cur­rently find themselves threatened by unemployment, part-time work and job insecurity.

At the same time old ideas are reappearing. It is alleged for example on the basis of work in the field of neurophysiology, and I do not intend to discuss its scientific validity, even if it has gained added author­ity by often being endorsed by women, that women are to some extent inferior in spatial visualisation and mathematical reasoning, making them less competent in scientific and technological disciplines6. The media rush to publicise these claims, as for example Time Magazine, which made it a special feature in January 19927. Linked with this are the latest studies of the size of the brain and its relationship to the intellectual capacities of blacks and women — compared with white men, naturally8. This is an area where scientists should get involved to ensure that old fallacies — racism, sexism, xenophobia — are not given a new lease of life under the cover of scientific research.

In 1991, 106 of the 166 states belonging to the United Nations signed the convention on the elimi­nation of all forms of discrimination against women. But there is a long way to go in order to move from the legal recognition to the actual recognition of the need for the full involvement of women in the life of our societies.

 Here, too, scientific workers have responsibilities and must set an example, starting with the situation in the scientific and technological community itself. This will also be an important contribution to the new world scientific and technological order we all want.



1  Development: the integration of women in the development process. UN publication E/CN6/1992/8.

2  Eisenberg, A. 1992. Women and the discourse of science, Scientific American, 267:96.

3  Powell, D. 1992. Women in engineering: Canadian panel calls for more, Science, 256: 607.

4  Women in science: 1st annual survey. 1992. Science, 255: 1365-1388.

5  Brush, S G.1991.Women in science and engineering, American Scientist, 79:404-419.

6  Kimura, D. 1992. Sex differences in the brain, Scientific American, 287:81-87.

7  Gorman, C. 1992. Cover story: Sizing up the sexes, Time Magazine,139:36-43.

8  Rushton, J. R. 1992. Intelligence,16:401-413; Nature, 358:532.

Published in SCIENTIFIC WORLD 1/93

 (versão em português)