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Gender discrimination ‘undermines science’

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Under-representation of women and discriminatory, “old-fashioned” employment practices are undermining efforts to achieve excellence in European science, according to a report prepared for the European Commission in Brussels that was presented to the commission this week.

The report is the first systematic attempt to gather statistics on European women in science and to use them in policy recommendations. Compiled by the European Technology Assessment Network (ETAN), it says that the number of women in senior scientific positions remains low, despite the different cultures and research systems in the member states of the European Union.

In virtually all of the states, for example, women make up less than 15 per cent of full university professors. Data on membership of the world's academies of science reveal what the report describes as an “extraordinary” and undemocratic picture of the institutions that shape science policy (see Table 1).

Table 1 Women members of national scientific academies

The report also shows that women are rarely on committees that set science policy. Some private research organizations, such as the governors of Britain's Wellcome Trust and the scientific advisory board of France's Association pour la Recherche sur le Cancer, have no female members. Nor are there any women on the board of governors of the European Commission's own Joint Research Centres.

But one of the report's main complaints is the lack of adequate statistics on gender in European organizations and the difficulty of obtaining data that is comparable across member states.

ETAN is optimistic that the report's official handover to research commissioner Philipe Busquin on Tuesday (23 November), and its consideration by CREST, the commission's main research advisory panel, on Friday will help to maintain the issue's high profile in the commission. The report will then be considered by government officials involved in promoting women in scientific research in member states. Social affairs commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou will also be present on Tuesday.

Chaired by cell biologist Mary Osborn, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, ETAN is a group of experts set up last year by the commission to look at Europe-wide issues. Osborn hopes that the report will catalyse discussion at member-state level, and that it will result in a directive requiring employers to keep gender-disaggregated statistics.

ETAN says that member states should introduce legal measures to ensure gender balance on public bodies and to allow the access to public records needed to examine peer review in the award of grants, fellowships and appointments.

The report says that “old-fashioned” practices characterize some academic institutions. “Reliance on patronage, the ‘old boy network’ and personal invitations to fill posts cuts across fair and effective employment procedures,” it says, adding that scientists' employers tend to be “behind the times in addressing the life/work balance and need to modernize”.

ETAN member Agnes Wold, of Göteborg University in Sweden and the author of a study on bias in the award of research grants (see Nature 387, 341–343; 1997), describes the report as a “milestone”.

“It is very important to show the poor record of [some] countries,” she says, adding that women scientists do poorly in countries well known for equal opportunities. “It has nothing to do with childcare; scientists have a special talent — like the military — for keeping out women.”

Shaping the commission's sixth Framework research programme (FP6) is another aim of the report. ETAN wants activities and support for networks of women in science, including proposals for ‘Eurogroups’ and for one-off grants designed to be attractive to women, but not to exclude men.

“We are asking the commission to improve the design of FP6,” explains Teresa Rees, the report's rapporteur and a social scientist from the University of Cardiff. The goal, she says, is to make it easier for women to participate. The report says that the organization of science gives men an unfair advantage.

The group, explains Rees, wants “the “integration of equal opportunities into policies, systems, structures, programmes and ways of thinking and doing”.

“We are proposing a set of strategies towards changing cultures and organizations,” adds Rees. “This is a one-off chance to get it right.”

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