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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Cross-disciplinary projects > Women and science: Engendering European research culture > Marie-Isabelle Baraton
Graphic element Marie-Isabelle Baraton: confronting sexism in science
Marie-Isabelle Baraton

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

Baraton's activities 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
F-87100 Limoges
Tel.: +33 5 557 73030

Entering the fray
Turning the tables

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