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Conference hears of economic value of gender diversity in S&T

Attracting, developing and employing women and men equally in science and technology requires a significant cultural change. Ultimately however, this change is essential for Europe's innovation, growth and competitiveness, Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for Science and ...

Attracting, developing and employing women and men equally in science and technology requires a significant cultural change. Ultimately however, this change is essential for Europe's innovation, growth and competitiveness, Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research, told participants attending the conference 're-searching women in science and technology' on 15 May in Vienna, Austria. As the European Commission's recently published `2006 She Figures' indicate, Europe has a deficit of women scientists, particularly in the business sector, where the average is about 18 per cent. This area is of particularly import, said the Commissioner, considering that it is this sector that is expected to provide two-thirds of the financing for the EU target of three per cent of GDP devoted to R&D by 2010: 'If Europe is to become a world-class destination for research, then we would need to make better use of our female scientists. Industry needs them, our education institutions need them, and our policy choices need them.' In order to fully tap into the potential of women scientists, the Commissioner pointed to the need to better understand the present situation of gender inequality and prejudices that exist, and create a socially just and economically viable climate that is conducive to the way people live their lives. 'If we don't create a fairer system, where all can participate equally, we lock out a huge pool of talent and potential that we just can't afford to lose,' he said. One initiative which is tackling the issue from a business perspective is the Women in Science and Technology (WIST) group, whose findings were presented at the conference. The group, which is composed of 20 company representatives and five experts, was started in 2005 in response to a recommendation by the European Commission to examine the situation of inequality, diversity and gender mainstreaming in a number of Europe's top companies. Taking into account economic, sociological and political dimensions, the group focused on a number of issues of concern: the work-life balance; companies' ability to manage diversity; the use of social reporting instruments for organisational change; and measuring effects on individual and collective performances. One area which stands out in the group's report is the analysis of positive and negative events which milestone a typical woman's career, and the mechanisms that result in women leaving their science careers. The '2006 She Figures' show that while men's participation increases at each stage of the research career ladder - from undergraduate through to the single highest post at which research is conducted - a progressive decline of women is apparent. In an interview with CORDIS News, Dr Ruth Graham of Imperial College London, the author of this section of the report, explained how the progressive drop-out of women in science could be likened to a leaky pipeline. 'It's got to do with the fact that there is not just one point where women leave science. It isn't just the fact that not enough girls study the right subjects at school level,' she said. 'It's got to do with a progressive series of problems throughout women's careers: you are actually losing young 12 year old girls as well as 45 year old women.' In order to give a personal voice to the issue, Dr Graham conducted interviews with women and girls across Europe at various stages of their career progression. During these interviews, some girls spoke of how family and teachers were giving them the initial motivation to pursue a career in science, or how being the only girl in an engineering class motivated them to compete with the boys. Also positive were the accounts by some women who spoke of how they had overcome barriers and developed strategies for success in their scientific careers. Many, however, cited difficulties that they were unable to surmount, like the feelings of isolation and exclusion in a male-dominated environment; fighting for opportunities to lead projects; and balancing home and work life. Asked to describe areas of the pipe that needed particular attention, Dr Graham pointed to the need to encourage more girls into science from an early age. 'I do look at girls and wonder whether we are tapping into their motivations, and knowing about what inspires them,' she said. This feedback, as well as the other parts of the group's report, has already given companies involved in encouraging the participation of women food for thought. Many of them have already introduced 'girls' days' ,or contribute to junior academies, creating an opportunity for girls and women to gain experience with science and technology and providing a behind-the-scenes look at traditionally male sectors. The benefit of the report is not so much its analysis as its ability to provide concrete measures for action, according to Pierre Bismuth of the global oil and gas company Schlumberger, and lead author of the report. 'The report will have a significant impact on the companies that participated,' he told CORDIS News. 'I think most of the representatives left the group with different ideas to the ones they had when they entered the group, because they grabbed onto the experts' advice and got something from them.' According to Mr Bismuth, the companies in the initiatives, by responding to the reality on the ground through the provision of flexible time structures, social networks and family-friendly policies, have understood and accepted their social influence and taken responsibility for their societal roles. 'Companies are discovering that the world is changing and they change because the world is changing. They want to be the pioneers, they don't like to be behind so they behave like social institutions.' But the urgent need to adopt gender mainstreaming policies as part of core business strategies is not for moral-justice reasons alone, said Mr Bismuth, noting that arguments in terms of the 'wasted talent' already imply a more economic approach. The group also provides some compelling evidence that gender diversity also leads to economic returns. In addition to existing empirical evidence that suggests that a good mix of people leads to a healthy and productive workforce, the group studied four participating companies, and concluded that individual performances were best in teams that were gender balanced. While science-based evidence of the economic value of gender diversity is useful, according Mr Bismuth, the proof is found in the confines of universities across Europe: 'If a company goes to campus today, it must be pro-active in hiring women. Would-be employees can smell it if a company is backward in this respect,' he said. 'They [students] are not interested in joining a company that is not changing with the times because if a company is backwards in promoting equal opportunities, it will fall behind in so many other areas. So the problem becomes an economic one for the company.'

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