Marie-Isabelle Baraton is an eminent senior scientist
in the Department of Ceramics (SPCTS, UMR CNRS) at the University of Limoges,
France. Her current research interests include the physical-chemistry
of nanomaterial surfaces as well as theoretical and experimental studies
of chemical reactions at gas-nanomaterials interfaces. A recipient of
many distinctions, Baraton has had to clear a number of obstacles on her
way to an outstanding scientific career.
"If you were to ask my male colleagues,"
says Baraton, "they would never recognize that my being a woman has
ever influenced their judgment. However, it is absolutely certain that
if I were a man I would never have had to face so many problems. As many
women scientists will know, men consider that a woman is successful because
of luck while men are successful because of competence. Conversely, failure
is due to incompetence for women and bad luck for men."
||Entering the fray
as a European project co-ordinator began under the Fourth
Framework Programme. In her first attempt, her project, SMOGLESS
(Surface Modification and Optimisation of Gas nanoeLEctroceramic-based
Sensor Systems) was awarded the highest mark and recommended for
priority funding under the Brite-Euram III
programme. The project was aimed at developing new gas sensors
based on nanosized ceramic powders for indoor air quality monitoring,
to counteract Japanese supremacy in the field of low-cost gas sensors.
Although it was a basic research project, high-sensitivity hydrogen,
carbon monoxide, methane and NOx sensor prototypes were obtained
and described by industrial partners as potentially marketable.
"I remember how my male colleagues
used to describe European projects -," says Baraton, "prestigious,
complex to write, very competitive and tough to obtain, delicate
to manage. In their opinion, it was out of the question that a woman
scientist should think of participating in such a top-level competition.
I can tell you that they could not believe that my proposal was
successful until the EC made the first payments! For the whole duration
of that European project, I was subjected to heavy pressure to resign.
So, basically because of sexism, women scientists face not only
the difficulty of the scientific competition - which is fair - but
also the difficulties their male colleagues create for them."
||Turning the tables
Encouraged by her
initial success, Baraton submitted a second proposal, again as initiator
and coordinator, based on the fundamental knowledge generated during
the first project. This second project, called INTAIRNET (INTelligent
AIR monitoring NETwork), funded under the Information
Society Technologies (IST) programme, has been described as
highly innovative by EC experts. It is aimed at combining high-sensitivity
gas sensors and GSM/GPS wireless systems to build communicating
mobile air quality monitoring microstations. Mounted on mobile carriers,
these cost-effective microstations will constitute a network of
high spatial resolution, better assessing the quality of air in
urban areas and complementing the information obtained from the
expensive, and therefore scarce, high-quality fixed stations.
"The question we have to ask ourselves,"
says Baraton, "is, can a society involved in a competitive
and global economy, where high-tech competence is a key asset, afford
to undermine its sustainable growth by ignoring or under-exploiting
the economic contribution of women scientists?" By now the
answer should be clear. A recent study has shown that, in terms
of return on investment, it is more profitable to educate women
than men as women are more likely to share and therefore spread
their knowledge. On a more fundamental level, policy makers are
coming to recognise that the contribution of women is, quite simply,
a plus for the economy and for society as a whole.
"Thanks to the EC initiative on 'Women
and Science'," says Baraton, "statistics on gender are
more and more available and allow us to understand the obstacles
to women in science. A possible immediate solution could be something
based on financial incentives: cooperating with instead of fighting
against women scientists should be viewed as more attractive and
rewarding by those who have had negative attitudes towards them.
For example, universities recruiting women as full professors should
receive more governmental subsidies. Scientific projects led by
women should be favourably considered by funding agencies. In this
regard, the EC should continue to play a leading role."
University of Limoges
Rue de Corgnac, 29
Tel.: +33 5 557 73030