Helsinki Group celebrates 10 years of promoting women in science

“A decade ago, the European Commission set up a group to promote the participation of women in science across Europe. Now celebrating its 10th birthday, the Helsinki Group, as it became known, is still going strong.

In an interview with CORDIS News, Tiia Raudma of the Science, culture and gender unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, looks back on what the Helsinki Group has achieved so far, and talks about the challenges it still faces.

Ms Raudma is well placed to talk about the initiative. In 1999 she was working in the Estonian Ministry of Research, and it was in this capacity that she became one of the founding members of the Helsinki Group.

The first meeting was held in 1999 in a conference centre in Helsinki that overlooked the sea, she recalls. Being December, it was dark and bitterly cold. The participants came from a wide range of backgrounds and had never met previously. While some were familiar with gender issues and had a lot to say, others had not given the subject a lot of thought and were not really sure why they were there.

Nevertheless, says Ms Raudma, ‘the first meeting was really fascinating and everybody really learnt a lot’.

The predominant perception at that time was that not enough women were entering the sciences and that the top positions in science were all held by men. However, a major factor holding back real action on the issue was the lack of data.

In spite of the difficulties, the group succeeded in compiling an initial version of the ‘She Figures’, which for the first time quantified just how many (or few) women were embarking on scientific careers and, crucially, taking senior positions in science.

As well as revealing the difficulties faced by women in science, the statistics also highlight another interesting trend, Ms Raudma notes. In countries that spend more on research and development (R&D), researcher salaries tend to be higher, and so more men (and fewer women) become researchers. Similarly, countries that invest less in science typically offer lower wages to their scientists; these nations tend to have more women scientists. “

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