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Women in Innovation, Science and Technology

Final Report Summary - WIST (Women in Innovation, Science and Technology)

We are all familiar with the old vanish box magic trick. A person goes into a closet-like cabinet. The door closes. A magician intones. The door reopens. No one is there. The door closes and, with the wave of a wand, reopens and the person reappears. The audience doesn't know where they were in the interim. A significant number of highly qualified women in science apparently disappear from the scientific career pipeline as if into a vanish box. Highly motivated women, who are unable to use their training in traditional academic fields, are available to pursue alternative career paths. Blocked from pursuing high-level careers in academic science, these apparent dropouts are more appropriately characterised as 'push-outs.'

Some become full-time homemakers or pursue careers unrelated to science. Others re-tool and reappear in technology transfer and other science-related interface professions. A vanish box, rather than a pipeline, may be the most appropriate metaphor for the situation of women in science. The classic pipeline metaphor suggests a steady flow through the system: increase the numbers entering a field in secondary school and university and in a predictable time they should appear at the upper reaches of the academic career ladder in relative proportion to their initial entry (Zuckerman, Cole and Bruer, 1991).

However, only a relatively few women attain high-level university positions even though increasing numbers of women are trained in scientific disciplines. For example, in Germany only about 11 % of professors are female (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2008). The blockages that impede women from rising in proportion to their numbers have created a 'reserve army' of PhDs seeking an outlet for their talents (Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi, 2000). What happens to these women in science who have made a considerable personal investment, matched by society's investment, in their human capital development?

The European Union's concern about failure to fully utilise society's investment in highly trained human resources was the basis for the WIST research project sponsored by the Science and Society programme in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). We wish to better understand the changing relationship among gender, science and the economy through the study of women's participation and advancement in the technology transfer, incubation and entrepreneurship (TIE) professions in the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Finland and Romania. On the basis of comparative qualitative research on entry into the field, work-life balance, and access to professional networks, we suggest a vanish box model to better understand the relative disappearance of women from the upper levels of academic science and their reappearance in TIE at the intersection of science and the economy.

The TIE field and careers are by all means still in a state of transition. The conduct of this research in four countries provided the opportunity to examine how the vanish box works in innovation systems with significant differences in social structures and gender relations.

The UK case study suggested that a tentative movement toward gender equality may be identified through the rising importance of relational occupations such as TIE. The sector is populated equally by both sexes, and the gender-neutral status of the sector is evidenced in a number of ways, including recruitment.

The Finnish case study highlighted different conditions for women's participation in TIE, in particular regarding institutional type. For example in science parks, female employees were often found do lower level work, which does not involve as much developing new ideas and generating new projects.

In Germany, women's representation in TIE appeared to be lowest where the profession is most developed or most important. An observation that lends support to the notion that in German TIE, women fall back behind their male counterparts at a fast pace once enough rewards and prestige have been accumulated or assigned to attract men.

In Romania, TIE is still a relatively new area and women's presence in top management positions was relatively low but overall the appointment of experts, salaries and opportunities for career advancement in TIE organisations appeared to be based on competences, experience, performance and professionalism, rather than gender.

The growth of university technology transfer is based upon the rise of polyvalent knowledge that is both basic and applied, publishable and patentable at one and the same time. Polyvalent knowledge is sometimes referred to as Pasteur's quadrant on the assumption of other quadrants representing basic knowledge, Bohr's quadrant, and wholly applied knowledge, Edison's quadrant (Stokes, 2000). The polyvalence thesis is that a unitary form of knowledge that simultaneously embodies these multiple qualities increasingly supersedes separate quadrants. The opportunity to translate knowledge into use within existing and new organisational frameworks that lack an automatic fit with traditional academic and industrial structures creates the need for interface capabilities.

The loss of women at upper levels of academic science is complemented by their reappearance in emerging professions concerned with the economic and social uses of science. We call this disappearance and reappearance 'the vanish box' and identify four phases in its operation with the reappearance of previously excluded persons in the new profession at the final stage.

Women who have been trained in science, but have not pursued a career in bench science, may be found in emerging careers at the interface of science and the economy. Even if they are no more or have never been engaged in research and development of new technologies itself, these experts have in common that support and manage the 'commercial science marketplace' (Murray and Graham, 2007). In general, multiple competencies are required for their work in TIE, including an understanding of the scientific research background, networking and team working skills. Traditional female gender characteristics heretofore largely relegated to the private sphere are becoming increasingly important in the world of work.

For example, relationship management and nurturing characteristics have become more highly valued in occupations emphasising cooperative and collaborative work within and among organisations. Concomitantly, men may become more like women as they enter relationship management professions. In either case, a convergence toward gender equality, based on universalisation of 'female' characteristics may be posited.

A general trend in all countries under study was that, with the exception of people working the legal side of the TIE business, many interviewees had to (re-)invent their own careers since there is no institutionalised 'career' in TIE so far (but an ongoing debate about the need to become more of a profession).

Overall, flat hierarchies, flexible working practices, opportunities for a good work-life balance, a lack of ageism, and a general perception that working in TIE is very satisfactory were among the positive characteristics identified by the participants in our case studies.

On the negative side - and to a certain extent the other side of the same coin - women in TIE were concerned with a lack of career opportunities (because TIE organisations are limited in their ability to offer continuous career paths) and low salaries (because most TIE organisations are publicly funded, i.e. limited in their ability to offer the salaries paid on the private sector side of commercial science).

As the interface between science, industry and government becomes more central to societal development; it can be expected that the interface professions that link these institutional spheres will rise in status. The position of a field in the S&T universe, its degree of centrality to societal objectives and whether it is on a rising or falling trajectory, affects who is recruited. These qualitative factors should be taken into account in interpreting women's work lives and careers. In some sectors and occupations of the emerging new S&T areas, women remain persistently underrepresented, as in high-tech entrepreneurship, while in others, such as university technology transfer, women seem to be gaining ground.

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