‘No quality without equality’ – new report on women in science

Thursday, April 24, 2008
European Commission’s Expert Group on Women in Research Decision-Making (WIRDEM)

‘There can be no quality without equality.’ This is one of the key messages from a recent report on the presence (or lack of it) of women in scientific decision-making bodies.

Entitled ‘Mapping the maze: getting more women to the top in research’, the report was compiled by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Women in Research Decision-Making (WIRDEM). The experts’ mandate was to review the procedures for evaluating and promoting research personnel and to identify measures taken to promote women into senior positions. They were also tasked with identifying which measures had proven successful and analysing the reasons for this, and coming up with a set of recommendations to improve the situation.

Speaking in Brussels, Belgium, at a discussion on the report organised by the European Platform of Women Scientists, WIRDEM Chair Maya Widmer summed up the group’s findings. ‘All of the data show a clear under-representation of women in leadership positions in research,’ she stated, pointing out that currently a mere 15% of full professors in European universities are women.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is the glass ceiling; although increasing numbers of women are obtaining PhDs, men are still far more likely to be promoted to the top positions in research. Furthermore, even if women do manage to climb the research career ladder, they are still likely to be paid less than male colleagues at the same level as them.

Another problem is the lack of women in scientific decision-making bodies. According to the ‘She Figures’, which set out the statistics on women in science in Europe, the proportion of women on scientific boards tops 25% in just six countries (Denmark, France, Finland, Sweden, UK and Norway). Elsewhere women make up between 7% and 20% of board members. This figure falls further when only the boards taking the most important decisions are considered. In the worst cases, these boards are entirely male; an example being Estonia, where two most influential research policy-decision boards in the country have no female members.

A major barrier to action on this issue is a lack of awareness that the problem even exists. With this in mind, WIRDEM’s first recommendation is a call for a strong commitment to gender equality from the EU. Meanwhile, national governments ‘need to make sure that high-level commitments to equality are known in the scientific community and that they are implemented’.

Governments could also help to boost the visibility of women in science by supporting networks, increasing public awareness of gender issues and having high profile prizes for women scientists, the experts suggest. Further recommendations concern the under-representation of women in decision-making bodies, and the experts propose making a reasonable gender balance (30 to 40%) mandatory in decision-making settings.

The experts also raise the issue of enabling both male and female scientists to maintain a good work-life balance, both via practical measures (such as childcare) and by tackling negative images of working mothers and promoting active fatherhood.

An important aspect of gender research is gathering data, and WIRDEM strongly encourages both the EU and national governments to collect detailed information on women in science. It also recommends that the scientific community calculate the cost of losing women in science – currently little work has been done on this.

‘There is a clear risk that European science is falling behind,’ the report concludes. ‘The European Research Area needs women and the young. So we must act now.’

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