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Women and Science: Networking the Networks - Conference 1999

At most scientific conferences there tend to be more women among the waiting staff than among the delegates, but at the recent Women and Science Conference even the waiters were men. A profusion of colours enlivened a normally grey-suited preserve as women scientists, gender s...
At most scientific conferences there tend to be more women among the waiting staff than among the delegates, but at the recent Women and Science Conference even the waiters were men. A profusion of colours enlivened a normally grey-suited preserve as women scientists, gender specialists and representatives of networks of women scientists all over Europe gathered to discuss how best to achieve research 'by, for and about women'.

The conference held in Brussels, on 8 and 9 July 1999, and hosted by the European Commission, focused on 'Networking the Networks', proactively mobilising women in science to help each other improve the gender balance in research policy. At the end of the conference the participants adopted a declaration on how the efficiency of these networks can be improved and strengthened at European level.

But why, in the 1990s, when women are legally entitled to the same access and opportunities in science as men, do they need such support? Monica Garcia-Aguilar, coordinator of WITEC (Women in Science, Engineering and Technology) Spain and currently studying for a PhD at the Catalan Institute of Technology, described how she felt in her first job working as an engineer in a car factory. 'I felt so alone, and I really knew how it felt to suffer racism or discrimination. It was really there. It wasn't just me who felt it, some of my male colleagues recognised it and tried to stand up for me, but it was me who had to deal with it. I didn't know how to, and at that time I didn't know any other women I could turn to for advice.

'I was the first female engineer at the factory and the only one, and I knew when I arrived that some people were against it. The younger ones supported me. With them I was not even a female engineer, I was just an engineer. It was the superiors who caused the problems. I was the most qualified engineer and the only one speaking French, English and German (as well as studying for my PhD) and they didn't like it one bit.

'My technical director supported me, but there were times when I could not tell him what was wrong. There was one situation when one of the board of directors asked me to go out with him. When I declined he told me my work would not be accepted unless I did. When my technical director asked me what was wrong, I could not tell him this as it would have been another reason why it didn't work employing females as engineers.'

It was a man who opened the conference, rather to his embarrassment: Achilleas Mitsos, Director of the Improving Human Potential programme in DG XII of the Commission, said: 'I feel this is not a good signal to give - a man chairing a conference on women, but it simply is the reality of life and the realities are what they are.' This was demonstrated when Birgit de Boissezon, an official from DG XII, enquired how many people present had participated in a Community-funded research project. Only 15 of the 124 participants raised their hands, and one of them was a man.

In line with the conference's aim to improve the representation of women in science, Ms de Boissezon, Elizabeth Colinet, Head of DG XII's own unit responsible for equality of opportunity, and Nicole Dewandre, Head of the Women and Science Sector in DG XII, presented some practical advice for the women present about how to get involved in the Fifth Framework Programme. In parallel, one of the Commission's immediate aims is to reach a target of 40% female participation in evaluation and monitoring panels.

An objective in encouraging networks of women scientists is to share the hard-fought experiences of women who've been there with other women. In this tradition Catherine Jay Didion, executive director of the US-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS), presented the American experience.

Ms Didion drew 'an important distinction' between 'of' women and 'for' women. AWIS falls into the 'for' category, because: 'we see men as part of the solution that we advocate and not just part of the problem.'

Ms Didion said the key to unlocking the heavily guarded door of science to women, is both to illustrate the reality of women's exclusion from the scientific world and to show society how much it would benefit from the inclusion of women. 'Information is power and without good data on women's participation it is more difficult to argue for scarce resources and funding,' she said.

To encourage women to open the door and once there to stay put, Ms Didion recommended mentoring - 'the informal mechanism by which one learns the structure and function of the scientific establishment'. One way of ensuring a mentor is at hand is to establish and use effective networks. She said: 'Networking and leadership skills, although applied on behalf of organisations, need to be developed at an individual level. It is through this personal growth that we can attain our shared vision for women in science worldwide.'

The contribution of gender research to the issue of women and science was outlined by Rosi Braidotti, professor at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. She said: 'Gender research aims at providing methodological and theoretical tools that study the visible and invisible power mechanisms that influence women's access to posts of responsibility in socio-economic, political, religious, intellectual and cultural life. The assumption behind this gender approach is that men and women tend to carry different cultural and intellectual interests and values. These include social activities, organisations and projects; the question can therefore be raised of the extent to which they can also generate different or alternative scientific projects and methodologies.'

Ms Braidotti stressed the importance of networking within her own discipline, and showed how networks within the different fields of gender research can augment networks of women scientists. 'Networking remains central to the project of women in science as it is to gender research as a whole,' she said. 'Networks are important in monitoring the all-round progress of women in science and technology, from the educational level, to job-finding, monitoring career progression, providing contacts, exchanging information and corporate tactics.'

The evening finished with an opportunity to 'network the networks' by visiting the temporary homes of women's science networks from all over Europe. After all the grand rhetoric, this was perhaps the crux of the conference. Women who had never heard of each other before were able to reach out with advice and support to other women in similar situations. There was also a real opportunity to plan the coordination of research and activities between the groups.

Catherine Adley, one of the few women scientists on the Fifth Framework's expert evaluation panels and vice-chair of Women in Technology (WITS) Ireland, said: 'This conference has provided us all with an opportunity to meet other women doing similar things. Already WITS has joined forces with WITEC (Women in Science, Engineering and Technology) and we expect more linkages to come.'

Agneta Hansson, national coordinator of WITEC Sweden, said the conference enabled networks to work together, rather than duplicating valuable resources by researching the same things. 'We are currently compiling a database of experts, and we have discovered the European Women's Lobby have recently started doing the same thing. Now we can work together by sharing information.'

Four parallel sessions on Friday morning sought to discuss different complementary perspectives of the networking activity with a view to formulating recommendations for future action. The rationale and the means for networking were fleshed out, as was the link between women scientists and gender specialists and the European dimension.

Under the chairmanship of Laura Balbo, the Italian Minister for equal opportunities, a declaration was adopted calling for a network of networks at European level. The strategic role of networks in improving the gender balance in research was recognised, and the conference recommended that they develop their activities, particularly in the policy field. To be effective the networks need to develop a wide range of tools, and the declaration asks the EU and Member States to support this. It further advises that the link between gender research and the 'women and science' issue be promoted.

Finally the declaration recommends: 'The next European Commission and the new European Parliament should continue to support the serious commitments that have been made to gender and sciences in the Fifth Framework Programme, and help facilitate the creation, maintenance and strengthening of a European network of women scientists.'

The networks will be invited to a policy seminar in April 2000 organised by the Commission, following the report of the expert working group on the 'women and science' issue, due in October 1999.

Ms Balbo said: 'There was a very good climate at the conference, and it means that there is now an agenda. There is a strong commitment on the part of the organisations to work together, and there is also a great need for them to do so.

'The Commission has been doing some good work. An increasing number of women are taking part in programmes like the Fifth Framework Programme, and women's networks must continue to work together improve the gender ratio.'

Source: European Commission, DG XII
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