Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique’s laser lab, LULI

Ecole Polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay

Action and data for women in science: A French example

As women continue facing uphill battles while pursuing scientific careers, various panels have highlighted the need to spur cultural change through gender action plans and regularly evaluating progress. In many cases, such action and data are lacking. But the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)—France's largest public research institution, which covers the natural and social sciences and employs about 32,000 people—has been at the forefront of these efforts. Although the latest CNRS gender report reveals progress that is “still too slow,” according to Claudine Hermann, the vice president of the European Platform for Women Scientists and an honorary physics professor at École Polytechnique, she sees CNRS’s efforts and transparency as “an example for other institutions” and countries to follow.

In 2001, CNRS became the first public research institution in France to establish a unit dedicated to evaluating and promoting gender equality among its employees. In 2009, it started publishing annual gender data booklets that Hermann says are the best source of institutional gender data in France. In 2014, the institution adopted a gender action plan to remove barriers for women through sustainable cultural and organizational change, with measures including training leaders about being sensitive to gender stereotypes, offering professional career development resources specifically tailored to women, revising the procedure for awarding the annual CNRS medals, and—as recently required by French law—ensuring that recruitment and promotion committees are relatively gender-balanced. The lessons that CNRS and its project partners learned from developing the action plan, conducted as part of a European project called INTEGER, have been used to produce online resources to help other European institutions establish similar plans. 

The latest CNRS report, however, offers a mixed picture of pockets of progress amid enduring gender disparities. In 2015, 43% of all staff members—which include permanent researchers, Ph.D. students, postdocs, and administrative personnel—were women. The higher the professional status, the fewer the women there were to be found: 65.1% of technicians were women, as compared with 45.4% of research engineers and 34.5% of researchers (which includes both trainees and more senior permanent researchers). Among permanent researchers, women accounted for 37.7% of lab members, 28.2% of team leaders, and just 18.8% of unit directors. There is a slight deviation from this trend at the highest levels of leadership: One-third of the deputy scientific directors of CNRS institutes were women.

The change in recent years has been inconsistent and mostly small. Between 2011 and 2015, the share of women among all permanent researchers increased slightly, from 32.5% to 33.6%, while the percentage of female Ph.D. students and postdocs dropped a bit, from 39% to 38.3% and 37.9% to 36.3%, respectively. Change has been somewhat more pronounced at higher levels, though it also went in both directions. The share of female deputy scientific directors increased by 13 percentage points since 2012, and the share of team leaders increased by about five percentage points since 2007, but the share of research unit directors decreased by about two percentage points since 2014.

Of the 300 permanent researchers (mostly lab members) that CNRS recruited in 2015, 36.3% were women, as compared with 30.4% in 2013. Female recruits however tended to be older than men recruited into comparable positions. For lab member positions, women were on average 34.7 years old, as compared with 33.1 for men; for team leaders, the gap was approximately doubled, with women at 48.5 years old and men at 45.2. By the time they hit age 47, 63.8% of male permanent researchers had made it to the rank of team leader, as compared with only 36.1% of women, which the report identified as “a sign of the enduring gap between men and women” in access to team leader positions. 

For annual awards, the numbers were closer to parity. The CNRS Bronze Medal, which rewards early-career permanent researchers who have made exceptional contributions to their field, went to women in 60% of the cases. Women were awarded 47.1% of the silver medals, for more established researchers. Salaries were almost identical for men and women at the doctoral and postdoctoral level, but pay gaps persisted for permanent researchers. On average, male permanent researchers earned €215 more per month than women—a difference that climbed to €355 for the top 10% of earners. 

The final evaluation of the INTEGER project concluded that “institutional cultural change is under way at CNRS.” Overall, some progress has been made since 2013, agrees Isabelle Vernos, a research professor at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona and chair of the European Research Council’s gender balance working group. “However, the main issue of losing women along the career ladder is still extremely prominent” in the latest data, Vernos adds, noting that the issue of lower salaries could be efficiently addressed.

Hermann, who acted as an external expert on INTEGER, says that “continuous efforts towards a better gender balance are still needed.” She believes that stronger measures such as compulsory gender equity training for evaluation committee members would lead to better results, though she notes that external factors such as government capping of the number of new CNRS positions that can be made available hinder rapid progress. Regardless, “having so [much] data in such detail is very important if you want to understand [and discuss] the situation,” Hermann stresses.

In its report, CNRS states that the institution will use the data to further develop its action plan and reflect on its broader human resources strategy. Setting such objectives “is extremely positive,” Vernos says, though she adds that she would have liked to see more specific actions proposed. “Collecting the numbers and following them up over time is essential for raising awareness and for transparency, but also to evaluate whether the measures and policies that were put in place are effective … and improve … them,” says Vernos, who currently coordinates LIBRA, a European project to design and implement gender equality plans in life sciences institutions.

Now, following new national laws, all universities and public research institutions in France must follow in CNRS’s footsteps to establish gender equality plans and publish progress reports. Elizabeth Pollitzer, the managing director of Portia, a U.K.-based nonprofit that promotes gender equality in science, hopes more institutions will join the effort as well. For her part, she is involved in a European gender action plan project in physics institutions called GENERA. More broadly, she says, “what we need now is for more research institutions to publish their data in a calibrated way with others, so that systematic comparisons and evaluation of what works and what does not can be made.”

What you can do

There are structural and cultural reasons that women are underrepresented in science, but there are still things that individuals can do to take the matter into their own hands. It is especially important, Hermann says, for early-career women to seek mentors who will encourage them to apply for positions, even if they lack the confidence, and who will introduce them to the hidden rules of success in academia. Another piece of advice is to network, she adds. “If you are in contact with other people, you can hear about opportunities,” and you get to see how others have balanced their private and professional lives, Hermann says.

Male colleagues, too, should get on board and help foster a more inclusive working environment, she emphasizes. “The objective is … to work together because … that mixing is very important for science,” Hermann argues. These efforts are to everyone’s benefit, she says, because improving working conditions for women will ultimately lead to better conditions for everyone.

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