Gender-balanced research: an interview with Prof. Claudine Hermann, EPWS Vice-President

Women made up 30 per cent of EU researchers in 2006, according to the European Commission’s latest She Figures. Published every three years, this statistical study shows a persistent glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching top research jobs. While about 45 per cent of European PhD graduates are women, this share falls to 18 per cent for full professors.

Within the EU, some member states fare better than others. “Some countries that we think of as progressive actually fare quite poorly,” says Curt Rice, vice-president for R&D at the University of Tromsø in Norway. For instance, the Netherlands trailed the ranking with just 18 per cent of female researchers in 2006, while Latvia and Lithuania topped the list with 47 and 49 per cent, respectively.

“The shared factors [that affect gender balance] are about what life is outside of work,” Rice asserts. “In Norway, for instance, women and men work about the same amount of hours; we have very good childcare; and there is a wide societal acceptance of gender equality.” To improve the situation, policy-makers should be involved across the board at the highest level, says Cheryl Miller, European director of Greenlight for Girls, a foundation that promotes science and technology to women. The so-called Europe 2020 growth strategy has set headline targets for R&D spending, employment and education in the next decade. It could also include targets to increase the share of women in the work force or in science and technology, Miller suggests.

In the research area, the Commission started to explicitly encourage women’s participation in EU-funded projects under Framework 5, in 1999-2002. “Since then, EU policy has had ups and downs,” recalls Claudine Hermann, a retired physicist and vice-president of the European Platform of Women Scientists. Hermann notes that the DG research unit for “Women and Science” was later replaced by “Scientific Culture and Gender Issues”, while the present unit is called “Ethics and Gender”. These name changes show that women’s issues have lost visibility and importance, she says. Framework 6 had introduced requirements for the participation of women in research projects, which were later dropped under Framework 7.

“Some women researchers were getting phone calls two hours before deadline to be included in a Framework 6 proposal,” Rice says. “This led to tokenism, which is not affirming for women.” But if properly used, the next EU research programme could be a powerful tool for change, Rice asserts. Attention to gender issues throughout a research project should be an important evaluation criterion. As Hermann puts it, “if there’s no money at stake, nobody will do it”. “Some [of Framework 6] requirements were a bit too vague and some people felt they were wasting time on these issues,” Hermann recalls. EPWS and national associations would be happy to help the Commission provide more detailed guidance for applicants, she adds. “Women’s issues should not disappear for the sake of simplification. It should be easier than a few annoying blanks to fill out on a form.”

The Commission itself has women in very senior research leadership positions—notably research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Research Council president Helga Nowotny and science adviser Anne Glover. But while it also makes efforts to include enough women in research evaluation panels, they remain under-represented in other, more powerful advisory groups and committees, Hermann says. To give the matter more prominence, Rice proposes that the Commission creates a gender-equality prize to reward the efforts of universities. The Norwegian government gives out a similar award, which comes with high visibility and some money to organise more activities promoting gender balance, he says.

For example, the University of Tromsø has set itself a target of 30 per cent women in full professor jobs. In his own research group, Rice has organised mock promotion evaluations to assess female researchers’ careers and encourage them to apply for full professorships. These have soon been copied elsewhere in the university—and extended to men, at their demand. “Making universities better work places for women will make them better for everyone,” Rice says. Meanwhile, Hermann praises the example of Switzerland, which, she says, has multiplied its share of female full professors in the past decade. “They invested a lot of money. It’s not enough to say something or wait for it to happen,” she says. For instance, Swiss programmes paid for women scientists to spend time abroad for research or conferences, helping them to build up their scientific profile and make their CV more attractive to universities.

More generally, Rice says that the Commission could do more to illustrate the positive effects of gender balance on work places, as more women researchers make for better science. “It’s demonstrated that group intelligence increases when a team has a good gender balance,” he adds. “It’s not about doing the right thing, but about doing the smart thing.”

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