Women in Science in Poland

Izabela Sosnowska

Warsaw University; Ho?a 69, 00-681 Warsaw, Poland

  1. Introduction

Every scientist, man or woman, faces fundamental choices. For a woman, however, the most fundamental choice of all is whether to pursue her professional career or to take care of her family. There is no universal answer to this question, and every woman in academia must cope with the problem on her own.

On the surface it seems to be one of those questions that are well known and thoroughly discussed. Several articles have been written on how to reconcile family obligations with intense professional work. But typically these articles pose a wrong question: "How to help a woman make her decision?", and not the question: "How to change the working patterns in such a way so as to help reconcile her conflicting desires?" Many well-meaning persons have intensified this conflict by urging women to do both things the best they can. Men delight in praising "their own" females--wives and daughters--and no doubt they praise them to make them happy. Their advice is: "You are exceptional, you can do both, even if others can not". These men wish to keep their wives and daughters at home, but they also want to be proud of them and make them believe it is not a sacrifice to devote oneself to the family. They assure their promising females that they rise head and shoulders above other competitors and force their women to cope heroically with a double load of duties.

The same men forget their generous and supportive attitude, however, if they confront a female stranger in their work place. An intelligent and well-educated woman is an immediate threat. Not only to their personal egos, but first and foremost to the special status of the domestic geniuses who are presumably an absolute exception to the rule that a woman can not have her career and her family. A sensitive man can overcome his instincts, if he tries, of course. So a new woman on the job is accepted sooner or later, in fact as soon as her male colleagues have had enough time to go through their period of cognitive dissonance. They eventually conclude that a female stranger can also be talented and intelligent if she is a part of their team, if she works hard and tries to be helpful, and, most importantly, if she looks like a man and acts like a man. But there is one rule that they will never break. She must absolutely never show any sign of aspiration to become the leader of the team. It is one thing for them to tolerate a woman that works as hard as a scrubbing woman--even if inadvertently she tars the picture of the female geniuses left idle at home. It is quite another matter, however, to be subjected to the decisions of a female that recently was no more than a stranger.

I am not the first one to draw attention to this problem, but we have a long way to go before we have fully grasped it and agreed how to solve it. I only want to emphasise one point. What most men expect in such circumstances is irrational and impossible to accept by an intelligent woman. They want her to subject herself to them in social and interpersonal relations before they consent to consider her a potentially acceptable boss. In other words, she must be inferior in order to be superior. There is no logic in such a wish.

All the same men and women work hand in hand pretending that this is possible. Let me give you the example of Madame Curie. We all have read of her scientific accomplishments and of her rare distinction of being twice awarded the Nobel Prize. We remember her radiant, handsome face, and we are sure that she poses no threat to anybody today. And yet, in most countries she goes under the name of Madame Curie rather than Marie Curie, probably because this appellation is depersonalising. There are some exceptions. The fascinating book by Susan Quinn is entitled: "Marie Curie. A Life". Here the physicist is presented with her first name. But even in Poland where the famous physicist is a national icon, we refer to her by a curious form of Maria Curie-Sk?odowska, constructed against the obvious grammatical rule that in a double name of a woman the father's name takes precedence over the husband's name. Yet nobody objects to this grammatical distortion. Even in the case of an exceptionally talented female scientist, the real family relations are blurred as if to prove that they are unimportant. A good female scientist must be perceived only as a scientist, never as a woman. Such distortions betray one more concern. You can harm the career of a woman scientist even if you mention that she is a woman. In many circles it is still a powerful argument to say: "We would like to rely on her, but we do not know if we can. She is a woman. What if she gets pregnant and takes a maternity leave." In most work places it is socially unacceptable to voice such doubts openly. In many countries it is outright illegal to raise such an issue. The woman's employers may be easily accused of gender discrimination. So with a tacit collusion of all parties, the fears are vaguely insinuated and never brought to the open. Women are obliquely inquired about their life plans and secretly suspected of being notorious victims, if not perpetrators, of surprise pregnancies. As a result they are considered less trustworthy than men. But nobody dares to admit publicly that it might be so. Consequently in everyday life of the academic world that is highly competitive and ruthless, one is giving a favour to a woman scientist if her gender is not mentioned, or even if her maiden name is confused with her married name, to make sure that they are totally irrelevant.

These universal socio-psychological conditions are additionally aggravated by some local circumstances. The real position of women scientists is best described in statistical data.

  1. Statistics for Poland

Women account today for a little more than 50% of Poland's population of 38.7 million (1998 data). This proportion does not reflect however, the women's participation in scientific activities, research work and access to higher positions in education, research and political institutions.

Women in Poland, in the legal sense, have equal educational and political rights since 1918. At that time even if they completed their university education and occupied more and more highly responsible positions, they their earnings were still lower than those of men.

Today one may say that women in Poland are free to decide about their education, even scientific or political, but this does not mean that their opportunities of professional, scientific and political careers, their access to higher positions are already equal.

At 248 Polish universities and graduate schools of various kinds there were in 1999 1,421,277 students, almost 60% of which - namely 812,324 - were women. Statistics concerning postgraduate participation in scientific activities and political life indicate, however, that after university graduation this proportion changes. This is confirmed by the employment structure the Polish Universities, institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences, graduate schools and research and development institutions.

Statistics shows clearly a considerable inequality in scientific and political careers of men and women.

The following figures giving the percentage of women occupying full professor positions and the number of Ph.D. degrees issued in the same time confirm that the percentage of women decreases significantly for higher scientific posts [1].


Full professors




































Ph.D. degrees awarded in the years 1996-1999 at Warsaw University, Poland is shown below [1].

? women

? men

1996 1997 1998 1999

Activity in sciences, particularly physics and mathematics in Poland like in other countries, is strongly dominated by men. Women do not take up work in physics or engineering proportionally to their talents and abilities. Furthermore, those who have joined the scientific communities, give up further professional development for social reasons.

At the Faculty of Physics of the Warsaw University women account for about 35% (average for the last 6 years) of the total number of students (about 900). Women constitute 41% of total number (120) of PhD students. But the number of women at higher levels of scientific career is much smaller. Only 5 women are among 48 full physics professors, 7 among 34 associate professors and 27 among 120 assistant professors, senior lecturers and lecturers. This is a much lower percentage than the average for the whole university. The Physics Teachers College at the Physics Faculty of the Warsaw University presents an exception - women account for about 60% of total number of students [2].

The presented general trends are noticeable also at the Silesian University of Technology (SUT) in Gliwice (Poland). The University, located in a large industrial area in southern Poland (4 million habitants), educates about 30 thousand students in various branches of sciences and engineering encompassing 11 faculties. One of them is the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics with about 1100 students, including about 100 students of Applied Physics. The staff of this Faculty amounts to about 150 teachers and researchers, including 69 physicists (in 2001) in the Institute of Physics. Women account for only about 30% of the total number of students in Physics (average for 20 years). It is clear that at SUT Physics is less popular with girls than Mathematics, probably because Applied Physics requires a lot of laboratory work and some technical experience. However, the number of women who entered a Ph.D. course accounted for about 30 % in 1992 to 50 % in 2001. Unfortunately, the number of women on the higher levels of scientific career (assistant, associated and full professors) is dramatically reduced on the average to about 11 % [3]. This effect is similar to the situation at the Warsaw University. A certain positive point is a noticeable gradual increase of the number of women assistant professors.

In order to support participation of women in scientific and political life the Polish authorities have prepared a special National Program of Activities for Women which has been officially passed by the government in April 1997.

A special program exists, see e.g. http://www.kbn.gov.pl/en/women_science/index.html, based on co-operation of central and local authorities. It is focused on the following tasks:

  1. Study of sociological, legal and statistical character of women's scientific,

professional and political opportunities in contemporary Poland.

  1. Preparing a permanent, complex research system and creation of a national data bank

covering information on women's situation.

  1. Practical utilisation of the obtained results in activities aiming at decreasing

inequalities of career opportunities between men and women, particularly in the field of


The program is also aimed at encouraging active participation of women in political life. In the previous parliament women accounted for only 13% and in the present one (September 2001 elections) their number amounts to about 20%.

  1. The Future

I am not going to offer any wide-ranging solutions. But I want to suggest one remedy that can help us find a more reliable settlement in the future. Women who already possess high academic status should oppose without any scruples every nomination of a poorly qualified woman to an important position. We should get rid of the "token female superiors" that are put in high places to create the belief that discrimination has ended. An incompetent female boss is an attractive compromise for many quarrelling parties. Those who distrust women in general are satisfied because one more woman has been discredited as an incompetent boss. Those who claim that discrimination has ended are satisfied too, because they have a clear example of a female boss, good or bad, but with high professional status. Many women are also happy because such an example raises new hopes. If they accepted a poorly qualified woman as a boss--assume the aspiring females--they will be even happier to accept a better-qualified woman in such a place. But all this is a complete illusion. Make-belief accomplishment does more harms than good. Nobody needs female bosses that are tolerated but not respected. We should not be pacified by examples of females that are endowed with high administrative powers, if the real outcome of their rule is a widespread belief that women are unfit to serve in position of high responsibility. The bold women who have made a successful academic career should take their achievement seriously. They should thwart any attempt to discredit its real value. If we have satisfied high standards of academic excellence in the highly competitive world, it is an insult to our achievement if other females are offered comparable benefits without being put to similar tests.

Let us oppose defamation even if it is done with good intentions, ostensibly to equalize the balance between men and women. We should also oppose the stereotype that women are inept professionals but effective operators--scheming, ruthless and ambitious. Maybe some are, but most of us are not. So if you read one day that Maria Sk?odowska-Curie was a brilliant scientist, but nevertheless an unscrupulously manipulating woman that seduced a "young academic genius", think twice before you believe it. Do not look for sinister causes behind professional achievement of every bold and independent woman with or without family. Be satisfied with the thought that some of us deserve what we get. Help others to get the same treatment.


  1. http://www.kbn.gov.pl/en/women_science/index.html,

  2. T. Urban-Rz?ca, Statistics - the Physics Faculty of the Warsaw University, unpublished.

  3. B. Adamowicz, Statistics - the Silesian University of Technology (SUT) in Gliwice, unpublished