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Male dominance on conference platform comes under fire

27 June 1999

The inaugural session of the World Conference on Science has come under fire from some delegates for the absence of women speakers in a meeting, one of whose aims is explicitly to address the 'gender gap' in science.

"I am deeply disappointed," says Margaret Somerville, a bioethics specialist from from the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Canada. "I've had a lot of women talking to me about this".

A strong theme within both Unesco's Draft Declaration and Framework for Action is the need to get more women in science. The first step towards this, says Somerville, is to "model what we need to do. We should have had women in the first session to show they are accepted and encouraged."

The opening session of the conference was addressed by a series of male speakers: Maurizio Iaccarino, Árpád Göncz, Ferenc Glatz, Pál Pataki, Werner Arber, Federico Mayor, José I. Vargas, M.S. Swaminathan, Bruce Alberts on behalf of Neal Lane and Sir Joseph Rotblat.

"The conference is wonderful, but we all have to realize that we cannot just talk" about having more women in science, says Somerville. "Not a single female voice came from the podium today. It's sad this happened, when we know they have the right intentions."

Earlier this year the World Conference was warned that women's issues were in danger of being marginalized at the meeting by being focussed in a single afternoon workshop. The International Federation of University Women (IFUW) - a non-profit, non-governmental organisation of more than 180,000 women graduates world-wide - said their experience at the Unesco World Conference of Higher Education suggested it was dangerous to have a special event for women (See Draft Declaration 'pays insufficient attention to women's issues', 13 May 1999).

"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", said Muriell Joye, the Secretary General of IFUW. Joye added that only women attended this session and "the point was lost".

However Unesco officials respond that having special session has enabled the organisation of regional satellite meetings on women in science, and that this has allowed them to develop the issue for the World Conference on Science.

The inaugural session was "an opportunity" says Somerville. "Saying one thing in a written document and behaving differently in reality is exactly what is happening in the labs of the world", says Somerville. "I've read the draft Declaration and Agenda and I thought they were interesting. But it is almost like a voice crying out in the wilderness. There has got to be real action not rhetoric."

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