A major international organization concerned with the position of women in universities has criticized the draft of a declaration due to be adopted at the World Conference on Science, arguing that it makes too little reference to issues relating to women in science.

The International Federation of University Women (IFUW), a non-profit organization of more than 180,000 women graduates, says women's issues are in danger of being marginalized at the conference by being allocated to a special afternoon workshop.

But Unesco officials reply that the Framework for Action document to be adopted at the meeting gives a detailed treatment of the issue. Anna-Maria Cetto says a dedicated session was chosen because the issue warranted “special attention” and argues that “you need to be proactive to change a situation”. She adds: “It hasn't meant marginalizing women, you can be sure of that.”

Muriell Joye, IFUW secretary general, says: “Our experience is that it is very dangerous to have a special event for women.” The IFUW, which brings together 66 national federations and associations, was closely involved in Unesco's World Conference of Higher Education last summer.

“At the World Conference of Higher Education, only women attended [a similar] session, and the point was lost,” says Joye. “When issues [affecting women], such as age and research grants, were raised in conference, we received comments such as ‘you have your panel for that’. We were pushed aside.”

Joye says women are barely mentioned in the draft declaration and in a document submitted to Unesco and the International Council of Science (ICSU) as part of the preparatory discussion for the Budapest meeting. IFUW says that “too often women are linked to, or even described as, minorities”, although they make up more than half the population. Joye adds that the organization does not have the resources to provide a detailed response to the lengthy framework document.

“Marginalizing women at the conference by mention in a single paragraph, and a special afternoon workshop on science and gender, will only help perpetuate the misunderstanding that the lack of women in science is a curiosity but of little general importance,” says the IFUW statement. “It must be seen as a failure to develop the potential of half the possible scientific resource base.”

Cetto says having a special session has allowed preparatory meetings on the topic of women in science in the run-up to the conference, which have made “productive progress”. “There is now much more clarity of what the issues are. I think the [women in science] session will be better for the preparatory work. It has enabled comparisons between Africa, Europe and Latin America.”

“All the comments received until two days ago are being taken note of,” says Cetto. She says she has not seen the list of responses yet but says that organizations such as the Third World Organization for Women in Science have been “close to the process”.

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