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Wasted Talents--Women Scientists in Eastern and Central Europe

On 1 May, about 120,000 researchers will be added to the European community of scientists. But how many of them will be women? And do they fare better in their careers than their sisters in the West? At first sight, concludes a recent European report on gender issues in the accession countries, women scientists are better off working in Central and Eastern Europe, in terms of gender equality across all scientific disciplines. But scratch the surface and the picture blemishes, the report warns.

Two earlier European reports outlined the situation of women in science, in academia and in industry, but neither took into consideration the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union. The Enwise (ENlarge Women In Science to East) report, Waste of Talents: Turning private struggles into a public issue , fills that gap by identifying the issues encountered by female scientists in 10 former socialist countries--Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia--eight of which will join the EU this year.

Legacy of Communism

According to the report, presented to European Commissioner Philippe Busquin by the Enwise Expert Group last month, women represent 38% of the scientific workforce in these countries, compared to an average of just 27% in the current member states. This better representation of women is a legacy of the communist regime, finds the report, under which specific gender policies gave an "equal right to and obligation to full-time employment, as well as access to education regardless of gender," along with child care facilities and state support for working mothers.

The report also finds that women scientists in the Enwise countries, which have been taking part in European activities since the early 1990s, are more proactive than their Western counterparts. Of the external experts putting themselves forward to evaluate European project proposals, 34% of those coming from the accession countries have been women, compared to 22% from the current member states.

However, the statistics gathered by the Enwise group reveal some bleaker trends. For a start, women are confined to lower academic positions than their male colleagues. Although representing 54% of university teaching staff, they are on average three times less likely than men to make it to the top--six times less likely in Slovakia and Lithuania. Poland and Slovenia emerge as the most female-friendly countries, with men only twice as likely to reach higher positions. However, you needn't travel east to find women falling off the career ladder. In fact, the situation is almost exactly the same for women in the current member states, with men being on average 2.9 times more likely to reach the academic heights.

The report also found that women in the Enwise countries tend to be confined to the least-promising and worst-funded projects. "Women are squeezed out of competitive, high-expenditure R&D systems, but absorbed into struggling low-expenditure systems as a kind of 'back-up' human resource," the report highlights. What's more, the smaller the research population and the lower the R&D expenditure per capita researcher, the higher the proportion of female scientists, with the Baltic States, Bulgaria, and Romania having the most women in research.

This finding is attributed to the Enwise countries' recent transition to a market economy. The resulting sharp decline in research funding and shrinkage of the previously dominant military industry have both contributed to a decrease in scientific employment. "Even though this change affected male and female scientists equally, the consequences of the transition have left women scientists in a more vulnerable position," the report concludes. The Expert Group fears that the situation will perpetuate itself, with young women more likely to miss out on emerging research opportunities because they are working in peripheral areas of research.

Starting a Family and Creating Research Opportunities

During a workshop that the Enwise group organised last year to let young scientists express their concerns, some of the issues identified appeared to be identical to those faced in Western Europe. One highlighted was the conflict caused for women by the fact that the age at which they want to start their families often coincides with the key period for establishing their careers.

But other issues emerged that were more specific to young scientists in the Enwise countries--whether or not to return to their home countries after experience abroad, for example. An unfavourable political or economic climate, poor infrastructure and salaries, lack of intellectual stimulation and recognition, and simply the lack of opportunities were all mentioned as reasons why young scientists might not return.

This was counterbalanced by a wish to contribute to the development of their home country by bringing back their knowledge and expertise. However, "a strong fear on behalf of 'older' scientists, perceiving you as being better than them, due to you having gained new knowledge, being well accepted within the host institution, and having established a lot of new contacts, exists," pointed out a 36-year-old female from Slovenia.

To help women in the accession countries get a better deal, both at home and in the European Research Area, the report puts forward a series of recommendations. In particular, the Expert Group would like to see young scientists better supported with new fellowships, more opportunities for mobility, and re-integration programmes, plus the creation of a Network of European Young Scientists.

The Enwise Expert Group also calls for ongoing European support to upgrade gender equality and research infrastructures and to better disseminate information about EU events and funding. Training and mentoring would encourage women to submit grant proposals and take part in FP6 advisory groups, suggests the Expert Group, while national contact centres and professional organisations would empower them and help build strategic links between Western and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. One such centre, based in Prague, is due to be launched shortly.