According to the latest data from the Czech Statistical Office, there are twice as many men as women in science in our country. This represents one of the worst results in the entire European Union. Looking at the representation of women by field, only 15% of women work in technical sciences, and 25% in natural sciences. Medical sciences show slightly better numbers, with the proportion of female researchers reaching 48%.

However, the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) has been successful in increasing these statistics. The proportion of women in our research teams is 57%, so we can proudly say that women scientists at ICRC are definitely not in a minority position.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science falls on February 11th, and at ICRC, we join the celebrations, along with hundreds of other institutions worldwide. The UN declared this day nine years ago to draw attention to the unequal representation of women and girls in research fields, as the numbers of female scientists are globally very low.

This year’s theme declared by the United Nations is “Women and Girls in Science Leadership, a New Era for Sustainability – Think Science… Think Peace.” And we can proudly say that for us at ICRC, women and girls in leadership positions are by no means a novelty, and their representation in leadership positions is expected to strengthen in the future. The percentage of women in leadership research positions at ICRC does not correspond to the overall percentage of women in research positions.

“Women and Girls in Science Leadership? Nothing new for ICRC; we’ve had a female head for two years.” The head of the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) since 2022 is the internationally recognized neurologist Irena Rektorová, who also leads her own research group in Applied Neuroscience at CEITEC MU. She also heads the II. Research Pillar of the National Institute for Neurological Research (NINR), where she focuses on researching the most common types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia, which includes Parkinson’s disease.

ICRC, with over 400 employees, is not an easy institution to lead. However, Professor Rektorová does not believe that women in research face greater challenges. “I have never felt a disadvantage as a woman in my position as a neuroscientist. In my research group at CEITEC MU, I have more women than men, but that’s probably just a coincidence. I am interested in any talented neuroscientist, regardless of gender,” she says.

“The obstacles I had to overcome in my position as the head of ICRC were not related to gender issues. Certainly, everything I achieved in my leadership position required hard work; nothing came easy,” she adds.

She is not the only woman in a leadership position at ICRC. Lucie Tesárková leads the Center for Clinical Studies, and Associate Professor Irena Koutná leads the Cell and Tissue Engineering team, focusing on cell therapy, one of the most progressive approaches in contemporary medicine. The Biostatistics team is led by Petra Kovačovicová. “The first months in the leadership position were the most challenging. The previous head, Dr. Michal Šitina, did an excellent job improving services and raising the visibility of our department in the hospital. I had concerns about whether I could continue that. But I think so far, I have been successful,” says Petra.

ICRC is an environment of equal opportunities, agree scientists. “I feel very good in the academic environment of ICRC. I enjoy the dynamism of my work, doing something different every day. Personally, these gender topics do not affect me much – I have many women and men in various positions around me, so I don’t perceive anything wrong,” says Hanka Duľová, Lab Manager in the Cell and Molecular Immunoregulation team.

Marcela Hortová-Kohoutková, the coordinator of the international BEATsep project, also does not feel any gender-related obstacles in her position. “In most of Europe, women and men in science are perceived at the same level. What matters is what they can do. Our international BEATsep project is the result of the optimal combination of insights and approaches to problem-solving from both genders. Honza Frič and I share scientific coordination of the project, and I enjoy how our views on the issues complement each other,” she says.

Mutual respect? It’s not about gender but about humanity.

According to ICRC Director Irena Rektorová, respect is more about a person’s personality and communication skills. “It’s about empathy, competence, self-confidence, experience, and surely many other qualities. Some people naturally have respect, while others don’t or seek it through various means, but that doesn’t work well,” she believes.

Lab Manager Hanka Duľová shares the same opinion. “I might not have a dominant personality – I’m more of a collegial type, so I try to help everyone as best as I can. Hopefully, people appreciate that, and in turn, they listen to me when I need them to follow new rules in the laboratory. Above all, I try to explain everything in detail so that everyone understands that we are all on the same boat, and there is no need to fight – neither with the rules nor with me,” says Hanka.

The biggest obstacle for female researchers? Transitioning from the fast-paced train of science to the role of a mother.

“Personally, I wouldn’t say that women in research fields have it particularly harder. What I do perceive as a ‘challenge’ is women leaving active science at the time of starting families – historically and, of course, biologically, we are more involved than men. It’s just a fact, and probably a right one. Sometimes I see doctor friends a bit sad on maternity leave, realizing that they stepped out of the fast-paced science. But they never regret it – they improve in other, crucial areas of life,” says Lab Manager Hanka Duľová.

“And it can be done differently – I have colleagues around me who manage both children and science brilliantly, and our friends even plan to switch roles after a year on maternity leave. I anxiously follow how it goes for them and wish them luck,” she adds.

Mariane De Araújo e Silva, who comes from Brazil, shared her experience with us in this regard. She works as a Ph.D. student in the Neuromodulation Technology team. According to her, the greatest challenge in the life of a female scientist is the intersection of a scientific career and motherhood. “My main challenge is balancing being a mother to a toddler and a PhD student. My husband plays a crucial role by pausing his career to support me in pursuing my dreams. He recognizes the challenges women face in returning to the workforce after having children. Motherhood brings a unique set of challenges, and in my culture, it often marks the end of a woman’s scientific career. Despite efforts to change this in Brazil, it remains a tough reality for many women,” Mariane continues.
She strongly believes that women excel in science. “Throughout history, women like Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and Katherine Johnson have played pivotal roles in groundbreaking discoveries that shaped humanity. Often, women work even harder than men to avoid gender-related comments, and at times, they take riskier paths to ensure they aren’t excluded because of their gender. Yes, women take pleasure in discovering new things, being creative, producing excellent work, and receiving recognition. Women rightfully belong in the scientific field, just as they belong anywhere else they choose, because we are equally capable as anyone else,” she says.

Martina Jelínková