Few Females at the Bench

Left out. Even in European nations promoting gender equity, women are grossly underrepresented in certain academic disciplines.

A study of a dozen European countries showing that women are grossly underrepresented in science, particularly in engineering and applied science fields, reveals that even nations that aggressively promote gender equity have lackluster female representation in academic research. The data were released by the Helsinki Group, a European Union research association that promotes women in science.

Thirty European countries belong to the Helsinki Group, which was formed in 1999 to bring together data on women in science and other academic disciplines. This first survey gathered information from 12 European Union countries and was presented at a meeting titled "Gender and Research," held in Brussels in November. The proportion of female researchers in the European Union ranges on average from a low of 12% in fields like engineering to 33% in medical sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Portugal leads the pack in terms of numbers of female researchers in the sciences: 29% of engineers and applied scientists are female, as are 48% of natural scientists. Funding for science and technology in Portugal has risen 10% annually since the mid-1990s, and in the 1998-99 academic year there was a 12% jump in the total number of Ph.D.s in science and technology.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, is on the bottom rung. Despite extensive programs of career orientation and mentoring, "women [still] opt out of science in secondary school when given the option," says Ilja Mottier, a researcher at the Dutch education ministry. Most recently, universities have begun establishing interdisciplinary programs in the hope of attracting more women, says Mottier.

Oddly, countries such as Finland and Sweden, with some of the strongest gender equity laws in the world, are among the worst European performers when it comes to women in science. "Even in societies where gender equality as been reached in a lot of areas, and where laws on gender equality have been in place for a long time--in Finland, for example, since before World War II--there is no gender equality in the scientific system," says Brigitte Degen, director of the Helsinki Group, who cites invisible barriers that plague women even once the laws have been changed.

Related sites

Helsinki Group on women and science
"Gender and Research" report