Interviews with Research Policy-Makers: Barbara Romanowicz (04/2021)

EPWS interviews a high-level EU research policy-maker in 5 questions.

In this new section EPWS is interviewing European research policy-makers concerned by gender equality goals. In this series of interviews we wish to offer women scientists the state of the art about the EU policy agenda on gender equality in research and the gender dimension in science content. On the EPWS website portraits of research policy-makers are now alternating every month with those of distinguished women scientists.


We have the great honour to interview Prof. Barbara Romanowicz, Chair – Working Group on Gender Issues of the European Research Council (ERC). This interview was written with the help of her colleagues of the ERC-Executive Agency, especially Severina Shopova and Brigitte Etienne who assist her in the Gender Issues Working Group.


Barbara Romanowicz holds a PhD degree in Geophysics from the University of Paris 7, France. Between 1982 and 1990, as a researcher at the CNRS, she developed GEOSCOPE, a then state-of-the-art global network of digital seismic stations for the study of earthquakes and the structure of the earth’s interior. In 1991, she was appointed Director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley. During her directorship (until 2011), she helped establish a joint UC Berkeley/US Geological Survey real time earthquake notification system for northern California. She was appointed to the chair of Physics of the Earth Interior at Collège de France in Paris in 2011, a post she held until her retirement in 2020. As a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC since 2016, she currently chairs its Working Group on Gender Issues.








What role does your institution play in shaping the European Union’s (EU) gender equality policy in research and innovation?

Women and men are equally able to perform excellent frontier research. This is the view of the ERC Scientific Council. Each process within the ERC – from creating awareness about the ERC to signing of grant agreements – is designed to give equal opportunities to men and women. Moreover, in 2008 the Scientific Council established a dedicated Working Group on Gender Issues, which has drafted the ERC Gender Equality Plans 2007-2013, 2014-2020 and 2021-2027, endorsed by the ERC Scientific Council.
The main objectives of the ERC Scientific Council Gender Equality Plan are:
• Raising awareness about the ERC gender policy among potential applicants;
• Working towards improving gender balance among ERC candidates and within ERC-funded research teams;
• Identifying and removing any potential gender bias in the ERC evaluation procedures;
• Embedding gender awareness within all levels of the ERC processes – while keeping focus on excellence;
• Striving for gender balance among the ERC peer reviewers and other relevant ERC bodies.


EPWS: Which are the most important gender equality policy decisions in research and innovation that have already been implemented a) by your institution, b) in the science system?

EPWS 2: Which are the most important gender equality policy decisions in research and innovation that have already been implemented a) by your institution, b) in the science system?

The ERC has introduced many measures throughout the years, which have had a positive impact on ERC applicants. They have all been considered important. Here is a list of those actions, which have been implemented in the ERC Work Programmes:
2007 Eligibility extensions by 12 months per child born after PhD
2010 Eligibility extensions by 18 months per child born before or after PhD;
2013 Scientific leadership potential (self-evaluation) section removed and order of Evaluation criteria reversed as follows: 1. Project, 2. PI track-record. Also, a Model CV template was included in application forms.
2015 No limit to eligibility extension (before that it was 4.5 years => 4th child was out). Also, care of sick relative is now a reason for extension of the eligibility. In addition, track-record focuses on 5/10 publications.
2017 Activities promoting equal opportunities or gender balance are eligible costs clearly stated in the Work Programme;

Furthermore, in 2016 the Scientific Council started to raise more awareness among its evaluators about unconscious bias that can occur during evaluations (through showing a video and discussing gender data). In addition, in 2018 unconscious bias training has been provided for ERC Executive Agency scientific officers and the Agency’s Management. Then in 2019 Scientific Council members have followed an awareness-raising session on unconscious bias, including an interactive presentation on unconscious bias with concrete examples of situations that panel members may be confronted with and how to deal with them. Finally, in November 2020 the ERC organised a Workshop on sex and gender dimension in frontier research, which attracted huge interest and showcased how integrating a sex and gender sensitive approach into research designs enhances excellence in science and research. It also highlighted the important measures that the ERC has implemented to promote gender balance and awareness in its funding programmes over time.


EPWS: What new challenges for achieving and ensuring gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation will arise given the current rapid changes in society?

A major challenge remains attracting and keeping more women into the research field, particularly for some domains. The problem of women dropping off starts well before the ERC stage and addressing it requires a community effort at all levels, starting in kindergarten. Nevertheless, ERC is continuously striving to attract the best female researchers available in the workforce be it through awareness-raising campaigns, ensuring a fair evaluation process, which includes providing balanced evaluation panels and/or engaging in discussions on the topic with the scientific community and relevant stakeholders.

A recent substantial challenge for gender equality has undoubtedly been the COVID-19 pandemic. It has had a huge impact and continues to do so on all researchers but even more so on younger researchers with children and researchers in certain fields, such as experimentalists for example. Restricted or no access to labs and closure of schools are some of the concrete examples, which have made it very hard for both female and male researchers to do their research.


Which of the latest EU research and innovation policy guidelines address the mentioned challenges? How does your institution react to these challenges? How does your institution ensure that Europe’s answers to the grand societal challenges will be gender equitable and sensitive to the gender dimension?

As stated in the ERC Gender Equality Plan, the ERC Scientific Council’s Gender Issues Working Group will pursue the following objectives for the duration of the Horizon Europe programme:

  • To continue raising awareness about the ERC gender policy among potential applicants;
  • To improve the gender balance among researchers submitting ERC proposals in all research fields;
  • To raise awareness about the benefits of gender balance among researchers within the ERC teams;
  • To continue identifying and removing any potential gender bias in the ERC evaluation procedure;
  • To continue monitoring possible differences in gender specific careers and academic posts, following the ERC grants;
  • To embed gender awareness within all levels of the ERC processes- from creating awareness about the ERC to grant signing- while keeping the focus on excellence.
  • To strive for gender balance among the ERC peer reviewers and other relevant decision-making bodies, aiming at a minimum participation of the underrepresented gender while taking into account the situation in the field of the action. Also, the proportional representation of genders should be at least equal to that of the applications by the underrepresented sex in the Advanced grants in the same area, aiming at the level of 40% in the future;

All of the above-mentioned objectives are vital for addressing low participation of women applicants in ERC competitions, monitoring ERC teams, where the next generation of researchers is being prepared, and ensuring a fair evaluation for all applicants.

ERC is also currently considering how to best address the COVID-19 impact on researchers’ productivity.


What role do women scientists’ associations play in the creation of gender equality policy in research and innovation at European level? What measures does your institution take to actively involve women scientists’ organisations in its policy-making processes? With what formats do you think your institution‘s dialogue with women scientists associations could be enhanced/ rendered more effective?

Women scientists‘ associations play an important role in shaping gender equality policy. ERC Scientific Council members and Executive Agency staff often attend events organised by similar organisations and give presentations on the ERC, as well as take the opportunity to network and collect feedback from them. The ERC Gender Issues Working Group also highlights initiatives, such as AcademiaNet for example, to its female grantees, and encourages them to join.

ERC Scientific Council members and the ERC President are also often contacted by researchers, both male and female, to raise issues of concern. The Scientific Council takes the task of serving the scientific community very seriously and stresses the importance of listening to the scientists.



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