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France Addresses Gender Gap in Science

Three years ago, Françoise Cyrot-Lackmann tallied the number of female scientists in France by counting female-sounding names. The name Dominique, used for both men and women, gave her trouble. She arbitrarily assigned 50% as women.

"The data are much better now," says Cyrot-Lackmann, the chief of a government office called MPST (Mission for Parity in Science and Technology) that was created in September and charged with promoting parity in science and technology. In November at a meeting at the ministry of research, Cyrot-Lackmann unveiled the latest figures regarding the place of French women in science.

The story is familiar. Women's participation approaches 45% in biology but remains stuck at around 15% in physics and maths. And the gender gap becomes more striking in all fields as one moves up the hierarchy of power. Cyrot-Lackmann, herself a director of research at CNRS (France's National Centre of Scientific Research), alluded to a "plafond de verre" (glass ceiling), and wondered out-loud whether women face handicaps when they are being considered for promotion.

But there has been progress. Women's participation in government-supported research centres increased marginally between 1992 and 1999, from about 26% to 28%, she said. Yet women's participation in industrial research and development still remains "much lower" at about 17%.

France is heeding the call of the European Union's directorate on research to promote women in science. "The EU is now trying to collect uniform statistics across the EU countries," points out Londa Schiebinger, a professor of gender studies and the history of science at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. The position of women scientists in France has been relatively good, she says, "even though [French officials] have ignored the problem for the last 20 years."

One of the first official actions of the new office has been to create the "Irene Joliot-Curie" prize, named after the physician and Nobel-prize winning daughter of Marie Curie, to honour individuals and associations that promote women in the science and technology sector. The first three recipients of the 50,000 francs (about 7600 euros) annual prize were announced in November, included an association for women in maths, an association lead by women that creates unconventional educational materials for youth, and an association that promotes the discovery of chemistry for children and adolescents.

In 2002, Cyrot-Lackmann's MPST will receive 2.2 million francs (335,000 euros) to promote women in science. Its work plan, as announced in November by her boss--the Minister of Research--will include programmes that encourage young girls to enter careers in science and technology and others that ensure equality in evaluating women for promotion. Programmes that support mentoring really can work, says Schiebinger. "The fastest way to fix anything is to hire a whole bunch of women," she quips.

The current scheme came about after the former Minister of Research pushed for the nomination of women to high-level positions in his administration, and succeeded in putting Geneviève Berger at the head of the CNRS. The newly promoted women then pushed for the creation of the MPST and required that data on gender be collected from all personnel. As a result of these efforts, Cyrot-Lackmann will no longer have to guess the gender of scientists named Dominique.