Women, motherhood, and science in Colombia

Efforts to reverse trends of disengagement with studies, normalize motherhood in universities, and counteract gender disparities. Four stories, like cardinal points, to better understand the current map of Colombian women and science.

In many parts of society, there are still strong gender gaps. One of these is in science, where women around the world generally receive smaller scholarships than their male peers and tend to have shorter and lower-paid careers, according to the report “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Latin America and the Caribbean”, published by UN Women and UNESCO. Colombia does not escape the statistics: according to a study by the Development Bank of Latin America, CAF, about a third of the cases of dismissal from women’s studies can be attributed to pregnancy or motherhood.

We visit the campus of the National University of Colombia in La Paz, Cesar – a region with almost no University presence earlier. Most of the students are the first member of their family to enter a university, according to surveys made by the institution. There are almost 30 women with children – several of them single mothers. This University is making a great effort out of these women to stay studying.

Angie Paola Simanca Rodríguez, 21, is studying Biology. And she is a mother to Ezequiel, 11 months old. A great dilemma she reckons. “Many times, I do not manage to complete all the tasks of the University because I must not disregard my son. Then everything becomes so difficult but so necessary. Because now that I have my son I feel with more desire the need to improve myself and get ahead, become someone in life,” says Angie. “As I am now a mother, I feel the need to give my son a better tomorrow. So, I feel the need to make the sacrifice of being a mother and studying at the same time. To respond with my university and with my maternity at the same time”. “And both being a mother and studying are difficult. This University is demanding. I have never had to read so much, have had to stay up so long reading as I do now at this university. It’s really difficult. And good at the same time.”

11 month old Ezequiel is accompanying us at the interview. Sometimes coughing or creating loud noises, making it difficult for us to continue our conversations. It makes me think of how it must be for Angie, when she must study while literally doing her mother tasks at the same time. She is alone with her son. They are living with Angie’s mother. Sometimes her aunt helps her with Ezequiel as well. ”I dedicate myself to my son – more than studying. When he is asleep, I try to do a lot of work. My son has gotten sick, I’ve had bad nights with him. And all these bad nights that I have spent with my son, I have been able to fulfil the tasks of the University. My mind doesn’t allow me to be aware of my son and having to complete the university. Sometimes, many times I have no one to take care of him. Then I won’t even come to the university because if I come, I waste my time. If I leave him to my cousin, I come to the university to call her by video call to see if she has bathed him, if she gave him food, changed his diaper. So, all these things distract me too much in University. If I’m at home with my son, he doesn’t let me receive a virtual class well either. I must watch the recorded classes when my son falls asleep so I can understand what the professor says. Because at the moment they are giving the virtual class and explaining – Ezequiel put a pen in his mouth, Ezequiel is going to fall out of bed, he is going to hurt himself. So, all of this means that suddenly I cannot comply with all my university activities because if you are a mother – the first priority will always be the well-being of your son. So, this is my dilemma,” tells Angie.

Also, to way for Angie to enter the University has not been easy. First, she did the entrance exam four times at another University in Valledupar, she tried both Nursing and also Opencast Mining – she didn’t pass. Her mother suggested her to try this new campus from the National University of Colombia in the region. But Angie had little hope after the failure times four – and she didn’t really know the careers neither– like for instance Biology. “I told my mother, I don’t know, what this career is good for. Biology I don’t know what that is for. I don’t know what a biologist is. So, I grabbed my smartphone and googled. It said Biology is the science about the living beings. Oh, that’s interesting I said to my mum. I will give it a try with Biology…. So, it is not my life project or anything. But it was the opportunity that was given to me, and I took it”.

“I planned to study, prepare myself and then have my child. But sometimes we are irresponsible. And also, the lack of communication, of orientation. It makes us make bad decisions. Here is the small sample of that,” says Angie pointing with her eyes towards small Ezequiel. She is living alone with her son and her mom. Her aunt and mom sometimes help her with the baby. “Being a mother and studying at the same time is very difficult for me. The most difficult thing is suddenly to think that I am denying my son the time that he deserves. And that I am neglecting my duty to study. I feel like I don’t have enough time to fulfil the two tasks as I would like”. But becoming mother has also been an important lesson for the 21yearold: “My son has also become a goal of my life. Since I have Ezequiel, I am more organized both with the money and everything. Today I must wash her clothes, today I must… every task has a day, it has a time, and it has an hour. Because I don’t have the time to waste it anymore. Now I must be more focused on what I must do. I have practically everything with schedules because in reality I don’t have time”. Our talk ends with Ezequiel crying as if he also participates underlining that point from his mother. 

According to UNESCO, globally 29.3% of researchers are women.

Yency Cardozo Vazquez is physiotherapist and part of the health team of the university. ”The region has a very complex story with paramilitarism, with the armed conflict in Colombia. There is an attempt to rebuild from the peace process and new ways of living and inhabiting the territory. We have five different indigenous peoples in the area. According to our surveys some 75% have a great amount of vulnerability! It may be low income they are not guaranteed basic services such as drinking water. We have a population of single mother families, doing on informal work in the region – that does not allow them constant income – which could transform their daily lives and their social mobility. So, these students who arrive are, for the most part, the first members of the family to enter higher education”.

The first challenge is the multiplicity of roles – mothers-students-partners – and some caregivers of older adults. Their workday is doubled or tripled. Some tasks – as is installed in the feminine, housework, childcare, generally take place in a private space – are raised in the feminine. That is a challenge for those women. Those are women with a lot of courage, to be able to transform their realities. Being some of the first of their families to go to a public university, either with those who belong to an indigenous or ethnic group, or who are Afro-Colombians. That is also a challenge to be able to transform within your Genealogy of your family, new ways of living, new challenges, to enter the university, to be able to graduate. Because it can also be a scenario that motherhood is a burden. They are very brave because the situation is difficult – but if I build and share what I learned from everyday life, then motherhood can also get a not meaning within the academy as an achievement and not something that people have to endure, but something that builds them that enriches them a lot,” says Yency.

The recent University Camp in La Paz has a beautiful view of two mountain ranges. There live five different indigenous peoples, who often have lived isolated from the rest of society and in various senses far from the academic world of the University. Claudia Patricia Vallejo, 26, is one of those women who is changing that picture. She belongs to the Arhuaco people, her home community is Jewrwa, some 5 hours’ drive from here. She recalls when she got pregnant as a 20 yearold and the challenges coming with that in her indigenous community.“As an indigenous person, when we find a partner or get pregnant, the family leaves everything for us to take over. Then – at that time – there were not really study opportunities. I mean, I continued with the dream that one day I would continue studying. I wanted to. But – this opportunity did not present itself. I could go to Bogota – but if I did not have any type of support – what were my son and I supposed to live from?”

At the time she had finished high school and wanted to study Maths. But five years passed as Claudia and her partner were occupied taking working and care of their child. During that time, they never even read a book or repeated something from their studies, Claudia tells. “I always had the dream to continue studying. I always said, the day will come when I will be able to continue”. Then one night, around 7 her phone rang. The following day, first thing in the morning, a teacher would be in the city Valledupar in charge of giving Pins to the indigenous people – so that they could then present the entrance exam to the university. Claudia had no money, but she borrowed to be able to travel to Valledupar. Next day, at 3 in the morning she left with her partner on a motorcycle. It’s a 5 hours’ drive. And they managed to get there early and get the pin.

But then, to present the university admission test was also another complication because they had been 5 years without reading a book. And again, regarding being parents. Claudia recalls how they had to leave her 3yearold daughter with the guard outside the university, while they were doing the admission exam. They had nowhere else to leave here – and were not allowed to bring her inside. But both passed – and now they’re studying Statistics together. “From then on it got very complicated. We had to be here at 7 in the morning. I had to bring my daughter, wake her up early, bathe her, dress her, we had to bring her – because she was very small, and we have no relatives here. We have nowhere to leave her. But then I managed to put it in a Kindergarten at least.There are moments when one does manage to concentrate on what you’re doing because – for instance I make her colour for a while. But then she comes – mom, look what I drew. Then oh nice yes, yes – and you disconnect. Also doing group work, sometimes I can’t participate, because I must take care of my daughter. It’s difficult. And my career, math, is very applied, I must study hard all the time,” says Claudia.

Mentioning all these challenges – remembering her life in the indigenous community five hours away, I wonder, if she’s ever thought of giving up on the studies, dropping out…“There are moments of despair. For example, when my daughter was in the kindergarten. Since she is the only one dressed in traditional clothes – and the other companions do not, she felt bad. She didn’t want to use traditional clothes. She wanted to wear the uniform. It was very difficult for me. I was already feeling that she was disconnecting from our culture. Children are getting used to what they see more. That worried me a lot – I felt – could it be that the classmates see her as different, so she would feel bad, strange, alone…? There were even days when I had to put a normal dress on her. But tomorrow you go with traditional clothes, I would tell her. We can’t take this away, it’s tradition – I tell her all this. But because she is so small – she doesn’t understand. Even me – I feel that I disconnect with my culture. This worries me. The own cultural education in this case. So, in the end, by being here, I’m making her lose this. It’s difficult. But giving up – no. After so much effort. I am also thinking about my daughter’s future, about how can I help my daughter. Otherwise, she will be the same or worse than me”, says Claudia.

For Colombia, of the total number of researchers in engineering and technology, only 26% are women.

At the recently opened campus of the National University of Colombia, there is being made an effort to include part of the population, which has not before participated in the academic world. Lina Caballero, 37, is leader of the organization Parent in Science, Colombia, which works for improving work-life balance and equal opportunities for women in science. She is also a biologist, PhD in genetics and director of wellbeing of this University Campus in La Paz, Cesar. And then she is a mother. And that is a great important part. Because the gender gap in STEM is still broad. In Colombia it is estimated that, if trends continue so far this century, it could take 150 years to achieve gender parity in, for example, engineering, according to research on women in science in Latin America. This situation worries Lina Caballero:

“We are working to make this situation visible. To create strategies, to normalize motherhood and fatherhood in the universities and in science,” tells Lina Caballero. She left her homeland Colombia a decade ago, because of lack of opportunities for her with an academic career. She studied first in Brazil then in Germany, now she reached her doctor degree. And decided to return to Colombia, to work for improving these issues.

Another challenge is the lack of data on the area, the founder of Parent in Science Colombia insists: “There is still a lack of data on the differential impact of care roles in scientific careers. Also about the unequal impact of motherhood on scientific productivity, and especially these data are required in order to generate actions and policies at the institutional level in order to support many academic women who are mothers”.

In Latin America, Parent in Science is a Movement led by researchers who work with research projects to evaluate and measure the impact of children on careers. From these data they hope to contribute to the discussion of strategies that allow the empowerment of women who are currently studying or working in STEM areas. Data is the first step towards desired change, sustains the movement:  “This is important of etic reasons, to include everyone in science. We miss a lot of talents if we only see male researchers. Also, if there are no women conducting research – it is difficult that gender issues will be part of those investigations too,” explains Lina.  

Lise Josefsen Hermann – a freelance journalist based in Latin America for more than a decade.  She is a Pulitzer Grantee and  has published in media like Al Jazeera, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Danish Development Research Network, El Pais, New York Times, and Undark Magazine. Photo: Charlie Cordero, El Cesar, Colombia

Angie Paola Simanca (21) with her son Ezequiel (11 months)


Claudia Vallejo (26) with her daughter Dwiney (6)


Lina Caballero with her daughter