Manuel Heitor, the minister for science, technology and higher education, was speaking at the opening session of an event on gender equality in higher education at Lisbon’s ISCTE university institute at which a study was presented that shows the low number of women in leadership posts in Portugal’s universities and polytechnics.

“It is a theme to which we have to be very attentive and … to ensure a very profound discussion,” Heitor said. “Also on the critical issue of what we mean by gender. It is a topic that Portugal is very behind on in the debate and hence the call I have made here, so that research work itself is done in terms of what other societies are already talking about.”

In terms of implementing policies to ensure parity, he stressed as a “critical issue”, especially in higher education, that defending merit is no grounds for forgetting parity.

Pedro Dominguinhos, the president of Setúbal Polytechnic and of the coordinating council for polytechnics, noted that among these institutions only one has an exclusively male governing body, but argued that there was a need to promote equality – including with measures such as quotas, not least because inequality is reflected in careers and salaries.

Heitor stressed that the question of equality in higher education is “more complex” than in other sectors, because it has implications for the diversification of disciplines.

“We have disciplinary areas … particularly dominated by women – pharmacy is one - and then we have other disciplinary areas where we only have men, especially in the digital area,” he noted. “So the subject is rather more complex, partly because of stigmas created since childhood, about where women and men go.

“That is why it is important to have research work … that has an impact on action,” he said.

Women continue to face barriers in reaching the top positions in universities and polytechnics, a study released last week showed – despite the fact that already for some years women have represented the majority of people with doctorates.