WOMEN IN SCIENCE: EU Confronts the Gender Gap

The report, * presented to EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin this week, is one of the outcomes of a conference on women in science held in April 1998. In the wake of the meeting, then-research commissioner Edith Cresson asked Mary Osborn, a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, to assemble a group of experts and look in detail at the situation female scientists face in the EU's 15 member states.

The first obstacle the group--consisting of 12 top women scientists and science policy-makers--faced was a profound lack of sound statistical data. Osborn says that, especially in industrial research, "it's almost impossible to get good numbers." Once the group had collected all the available data, however, a more or less consistent picture emerged. Although the science community in some southern European countries, such as Portugal, seemed to be a little less lopsided, the proportion of women in senior research positions was extremely small--in Austria, for example, only 4% of full professors are female, compared to almost 14% in the United States. The situation is even worse in independent research institutions and private granting organizations. "In some charities women didn't play any role at all," says Osborn.

This is in striking contrast to the gender distribution among science undergraduates, where every other student is female. "Women are not staying in science. They're not being promoted to the same level as their male colleagues," says Osborn. "This is a huge waste of resources. Society, which is paying for the training [of female scientists], is not getting a good return." Busquin agrees: "Women's potential is seriously underused. Many highly trained women are lost to science during their career."

Osborn's first take-home message is that "we need to push for better statistics, broken down by gender but also by academic rank. And a monitoring system, because if you don't have the numbers you can't really assess any progress." Also, given the severity of the problem, the group calls for a concerted action plan across the EU instead of piecemeal projects in individual member states. European legislators should mandate target ratios for gender balance in public bodies such as universities, grant assessment panels, and policy-making committees. Osborn points out that some countries, including Finland and Italy, already have such gender equality acts in place.

For the Sixth Framework Program, the next round of the EU's rolling multibillion-dollar research effort starting in 2002, the group suggests, among other things, that the commission should aim for a gender balance no greater than 60:40 on key scientific committees and evaluation panels by 2005, monitor grant applications and success rates by gender, and create a new European prize for excellent female researchers.

The report will also be presented at a meeting of national civil servants from across the EU in Helsinki at the end of the month, where "it may serve as a catalyst to kick off national debates in the member states," says Nicole Dewandre, the head of the Women and Science section of the EU research directorate. "This gives us a solid, quantitative argument for opening up the European science system to women," she says.

* "Promoting Excellence Through Mainstreaming Gender Equality." See www.cordis.lu/improving/src/hp_women.htm

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