Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Helsinki Group celebrates 10 years of promoting women in science

A decade ago, the European Commission set up a group to promote the participation of women in science across Europe. Now celebrating its 10th birthday, the Helsinki Group, as it became known, is still going strong.

In an interview with CORDIS News, Tiia Raudma of the Science,...
Helsinki Group celebrates 10 years of promoting women in science
A decade ago, the European Commission set up a group to promote the participation of women in science across Europe. Now celebrating its 10th birthday, the Helsinki Group, as it became known, is still going strong.

In an interview with CORDIS News, Tiia Raudma of the Science, culture and gender unit at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research, looks back on what the Helsinki Group has achieved so far, and talks about the challenges it still faces.

Ms Raudma is well placed to talk about the initiative. In 1999 she was working in the Estonian Ministry of Research, and it was in this capacity that she became one of the founding members of the Helsinki Group.

The first meeting was held in 1999 in a conference centre in Helsinki that overlooked the sea, she recalls. Being December, it was dark and bitterly cold. The participants came from a wide range of backgrounds and had never met previously. While some were familiar with gender issues and had a lot to say, others had not given the subject a lot of thought and were not really sure why they were there.

Nevertheless, says Ms Raudma, 'the first meeting was really fascinating and everybody really learnt a lot'.

The predominant perception at that time was that not enough women were entering the sciences and that the top positions in science were all held by men. However, a major factor holding back real action on the issue was the lack of data.

The European Commission, with the support of the Helsinki Group, set out to address the problem. Eurostat did not collect as much data then as it does now, so a lot of the information came from a specially set up network of 'Helsinki Group statistical correspondents'. It wasn't easy.

'I'd contact the statistical office and ask, 'what have you got?' and they'd say 'not a lot!',' explains Ms Raudma. At least Estonia is small enough that it is possible for one person to phone round all the universities and ask for their statistics, she adds. Correspondents in larger nations faced a much bigger challenge.

In many cases, data on numbers of women scientists were simply not available, because male and female researchers were counted together.

In spite of the difficulties, the group succeeded in compiling an initial version of the 'She Figures', which for the first time quantified just how many (or few) women were embarking on scientific careers and, crucially, taking senior positions in science.

As well as revealing the difficulties faced by women in science, the statistics also highlight another interesting trend, Ms Raudma notes. In countries that spend more on research and development (R&D), researcher salaries tend to be higher, and so more men (and fewer women) become researchers. Similarly, countries that invest less in science typically offer lower wages to their scientists; these nations tend to have more women scientists.

Ms Raudma stresses that while there are exceptions to the rule, the findings highlight the fact that 'you can't just plough more money into research and development without addressing how we do research'.

As Ms Raudma points out, the current research system was designed for men with a stay-at-home-wife, and it has simply not evolved in line with changes in society. The system is in urgent need of modernisation, she argues, adding that improving researchers' work-life balance and offering them more flexibility will be good for men too.

Armed with its detailed statistics, the Helsinki Group has played an important role in pushing the issue of women in science up the research policy agenda; the subject is now taken seriously at all levels. However, Ms Raudma says, 'We haven't quite succeeded in making it an unavoidable part of the research landscape. The work of the Helsinki Group is not completed.'

Furthermore, some countries have come further than others; she estimates that the issue is still barely discussed in around half of the countries represented in the Helsinki Group (members are drawn from the EU Member States plus the countries associated to the EU's research programmes).

Meanwhile, the Helsinki Group continues to provide an important forum for the Member States and the Commission to come together and discuss the issue and exchange ideas and best practice.

Looking to the future, Ms Raudma says that she hopes that in the next 10 years, many of the Helsinki Group's ideas and recommendations will be fully accepted. Until that day comes, the group will continue to contribute to reports and statistics highlighting the fact that when a woman drops out of science, it is the scientific world that loses out.

Source: CORDIS News interview with Tiia Raudma

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Record Number: 31502 / Last updated on: 2009-11-24
Category: Interviews
Provider: EC