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Women scientists use science to press for gender equality

The leaky pipeline is just one of the statistical tools a group of women scientists have employed to prove, scientifically, the under-representation of women in their disciplines.

Figures show that at every stage on the career ladder, in every EU Member State, in every academ...
The leaky pipeline is just one of the statistical tools a group of women scientists have employed to prove, scientifically, the under-representation of women in their disciplines.

Figures show that at every stage on the career ladder, in every EU Member State, in every academic discipline, women are being lost to science - literally leaking out of the academic pipeline.

Compiled by the European Technology Assessment Network (ETAN), a group of 12 women experts asked by the European Commission to produce a policy report on the gender aspects of research policy in the EU, the statistics afford a scientific assessment of the position of women in science. In the past, the absence of reliable, accessible and harmonised data categorised by gender has obscured the true situation.

The report, which was presented to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin in December last year, formed the basis of discussion at the recent Women and Science conference dedicated to 'Making Change Happen'. Mr Busquin chaired the closing debate of the two-day event, demonstrating a high-level political commitment within the Commission to harnessing the wasted human potential of devaluing half our scientific community.

Despite making up at least 50 per cent of first degree students in most EU countries, women tend to disappear from academic life before taking up qualified posts. The first significant drop occurs at the postgraduate level. At the other end of the scale, the percentage of full professors who are women ranges from five per cent in the Netherlands to 18 per cent in Finland.

The shortcomings of the peer review system, by which the majority of grants and other resources necessary for conducting research are distributed within the research community, was dramatically revealed by two women scientists in Sweden, Christine Wennaras and Agnes Wold, both ETAN members.

They took advantage of a Swedish law that allows access to public papers, and conducted a study of the Swedish Medical Council's evaluation process to discover why it was twice as likely to grant a male applicant a post-doctoral position than a female one. Their findings showed that the extra competence points allotted to male applicants because of their gender corresponded to having been published 20 times in excellent, specialist, scientific publications.

ETAN member Mineke Bosch, a historian of gender and science at Maastricht University, presented the Swedish results in the form of a video 'wasted talent' to the 'women and science' delegates. The predominately female audience warmly received the account of the two women - symbolically seated behind portraits of their male predecessors - successfully taking on the scientific establishment, armed with the tools of their profession.

'The facts and figures highlighted in the ETAN report are disgraceful,' said Teresa Rees, Professor of the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and rapporteur of the ETAN report. 'What they show is that excellent women scientists are allowed to be systematically excluded to make way for mediocre men.

'These figures are important. Information is power, and without good data it is difficult to argue the reality of the situation and to argue for measures to improve it.

'We need to gather more and better data,' she continued, whilst cautioning, 'getting the data together is only the first step. After that we need action.'

While the ETAN report, which was compiled in less than a year on a minimal budget, has begun the process, there is a lot more data that needs collecting. Mary Osborn, chairman of the ETAN report, and a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, pointed to the difficulties the ETAN group had to overcome in harmonising the figures collected from the different Member States. She called on international bodies such as UNESCO and the OECD to get together with the statistical offices of individual countries to provide comparable statistics.

Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin agreed with the need of some centrally monitored system for collecting information. 'To take a scientific term, we need a methodology to improve the participation of women in science,' he said. 'There is a need for a system of benchmarking and references.

'We must ask questions, and learn from the best practices in Member States, and import them to others. We need to develop a coherent approach to promoting research by, for and on women in framework programmes.'

The issue is enshrined at the heart of Community research policy. The recognition of the economic value of not squandering half the European scientific potential is becoming widely recognised, he said, and was underlined at the recent Lisbon summit on employment, economic reform and social cohesion. 'We are moving towards a society where knowledge is becoming more important, and this knowledge based society needs the participation of everybody, men and women,' he said.

The Belgian Commissioner pointed out that although there remains much to be done, the Commission has taken some significant, and effective, steps towards gender equality in the sciences.

At the first women and science conference in 1998, delegates asked for four things: a women and science sector within the Commission, a political commitment from the Commission to promoting women in science, greater female representation on decision making bodies such as the advisory groups, evaluation panels and monitoring panels, and the commissioning of a statistical report.

Today, all four requests have been answered. Within months of the first conference, a women and science sector had been set up within the Improving Human Potential Programme of the FP5. This sector, headed by Nicole Dewandre, is responsible for - among other things - coordinating a network of networks for women scientists formed to improve female participation in Community research programmes, commissioning the ETAN report, as well as organising the latest women and science conference.

Progress has also been made towards including women in the top EU policy and decision-making bodies. CREST, the Scientific Technical and Research committee, has increased its female representation from zero in 1993 to 35 per cent in 1998. Women constitute 26 per cent of the membership of the Commission's external advisory groups, set up in 1999 to advise on the direction of the Fifth Framework Programme. Although the aim is to increase this proportion to 40 per cent, progress is being made in senior positions - women chair seven out of 17 of the committees.

Unfortunately the figures in the research directorate-general don't look so good. Women make up only 9.5 per cent of official posts in A grade, (although this figure improves to 18.7 if temporary posts are included). There are no women in the top two A1 and A2 levels. Both Philippe Busquin and Achilleas Mitsos, Director of the Improving Human Potential Programme in the Research Directorate-General, promised to look at how they could put their own house in order.

The Commission also adopted a communication proposing several ways of increasing the representation of women and science, which has since been welcomed by both the Parliament and the Council.

The rapporteur for the European Parliament's report on the Communication 'Mobilising women to enrich European research', MEP Eryll McNally also stressed her institution's support for women and science, although she said the time for talking is over. 'The ETAN report reminded people that things need to be done. We want an end to talking. We want real progress.'

The ETAN report made several recommendations for action, which were approved at the conference. The report is entitled 'Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality'. What this means is that a commitment to gender equality should become part of the mainstream in every aspect of Community research policy.

The report also suggests that individual organisations be persuaded to incorporate gender mainstreaming into their company policy, although this would be a matter for Member States. ETAN recommends that each EU member pass a Directive requiring employers of 50 people or more to collect gender dis-aggregated statistics, which can then be monitored.

Once the position - both nationally and at the level of individual organisations - is clear, a commitment to changing the status quo is required.

The conference recommended a legal carrot and stick approach, providing assistance to companies who want to take steps to improve their gender balance, and penalties to those who don't. The report suggests Member States work towards legislation on gender balance in public bodies, equal pay and access to public records. Where necessary laws impeding women should be repealed.

With growing evidence of both real and subconscious discrimination against female researchers, and against a background of political and legal action, the women - and men- attending the conference made it clear that they were ready to 'make change happen'. Hilary Rose, a professor of sociology at London's City University, put it like this: 'We don't want more gestures - little women's think tanks or the like. We need a real commitment to change.'

Source: Women and science sector, Research Directorate-General.

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