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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research themes > Cross-disciplinary themes > Encouraging the participation of women in science
Graphic element Encouraging the participation of women in science

Increased involvement of women in research has the potential to enrich European science in terms of its methods, the subjects it focuses on and the objectives assigned to scientific research. The Council Resolution of 1 June 1999 on Women and Science, states " the question of under-representation of women in the field of scientific and technical research is a common concern for Member States and the Community and needs to be addressed whilst noting that the problem of under-representation is not confined to the research sector alone."

The position of women in science

DG Research initiated the women and science activity in 1997. A conference organised on the subject of "Women and Science" in 1998, on the initiative of Research Commissioner, Edith Cresson, proved a great success and clearly showed the Commission's serious commitment to systematic change in this area. A total of 450 women scientists expressed their desire to participate and 250 were accepted. The women scientists told of their experiences: the under-representation of women in the scientific system was the result of a latent discriminatory process against women scientists. On 17 February 1999, the Commission presented a Communication on the subject "Women and science: mobilising women to enrich European research." This document presented the Commission action plan for the duration of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5).

"The under-representation of women in science threatens the goals of science in achieving excellence, as well as being wasteful and unjust." This was one conclusion of the ETAN (European Technology Assessment Network) Expert Working Group on Women and Science. Their report entitled "Science policies in the European Union: promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality" set out to identify challenges and review policy options, in order to address the gender balance in research policy. This report subsequently formed the basis of a conference organised by the Commission, entitled "Women and Science: making change happen." (Brussels, April 3-4, 2000).

How and why has the European Commission become involved

The Commission has undertaken to pursue two objectives in relation to women and science:

  • To stimulate discussion and the sharing of experience in this field among the Member States, so that action can be taken as effectively as possible at all levels;
  • To develop a coherent approach towards promoting women in research, financed by the Union, with the aim of significantly increasing the number of women involved in research during the period of the Fifth Framework Programme.

The Commission's aim is to achieve at least a 40% representation for women in Marie Curie scholarships, advisory groups and assessment/monitoring panels. On 21 February 2001, the Commission adopted the proposal for the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006). The gender dimension will be taken into account throughout this programme, to allow progress along the three tracks: research by, for and on women.

  • By - promotion of participation of women in research;
  • For - promotion of research agenda which meets female needs;
  • On - research on the gender issue.

This fulfils one of the main criteria outlined in the ETAN report, which highlighted the need to mainstream gender equality into the entire Framework Programme and in particular to assess the integration of a gender dimension into scientific research projects at application, monitoring and evaluation stages.

   Reasons for under-representation

There is a clear need to attract more young people, and in particular females, into science. This means introducing change at various levels such as career guidance, mentoring schemes, networks, proper structures and schemes for parents returning after career breaks and encouragement to women to apply for fellowships and posts.

The representation of women in higher education, research institutes, in industry and among members of senior scientific committees is consistently very small. Research carried out by the National Centre for Social Research in the UK shows that female researchers are commonly under-represented in the secure senior positions from which more applications are made.

Nathalie Sauvonnet is the recipient of a Marie Curie Scholarship. "There are still not enough women at the head of laboratories, and often directors believe that it is not good to have women researchers as they will want to have children and so will be less available to work," she says. "There is a lot of competition between postdocs who are trying to find a more permanent position, mainly due to the lack of positions available in Europe."

Measuring women's participation

The need to collect sex-desegregated statistics and build gender sensitive indicators at EU and Member State level was recognized in the Commission's Communication, in the Council's Resolution and in the European Parliament's Resolution on women and science. This will be addressed by 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' approaches. The former is based upon a strong co-operation between all institutions involved in the production of statistics at European and international levels, i.e. Council of Europe, UNESCO, Eurostat and OECD. This co-operation should help avoiding overlapping and duplicating activities. The latter involves exploiting existing data at national level to develop the needed gender indicators.

In 1999, women had less than 20% representation on the programme committee and expert advisory group for the Growth Programme and across any of the Growth key actions. They registered approximately 15% participation in evaluation panels and were not represented at all on Growth monitoring panels (Figures from Women and Science website).

A study carried out by Louise Ackers (Professor at the Department of Law, University of Lancaster) on "Women in TMR Marie Curie Fellowships (1995-1998)", showed that women comprised about one third of applicants. Applications for the most popular panel (life sciences) included a relatively high proportion of women. The question of confidence, the importance of role models and mentors, and the relationship between these factors and the likelihood of making an application was raised in several instances over the course of the research.
The importance of an effective information policy cannot be underestimated in ensuring that women are informed about the schemes and programmes designed to increase their participation in scientific research. This improved participation will only be possible if there are more female applicants.

Shaping scientific policy

Recent developments and reorganisation within the European Commission have seen the establishment of a new 'Women and Science' unit within the 'Science and Society' Directorate of DG Research.

The Commission is currently encouraging public debate on "Science, Society and the Citizen" via an online forum on the Cordis website. This initiative will allow the collection of views from various stakeholders which will then be used to draft an action plan by the end of 2001, on key issues affecting science and society.

A Commission Staff Working Paper entitled "Women and Science: the gender dimension as a leverage for reforming science", was issued on 15 May 2001. It focuses on progress under the action plan proposed in 1999, on the work of the Helsinki group (policy review and indicators), and on the implementation of the Gender Watch System under FP5 (women's participation and gender impact studies). This Working Paper was also discussed at the Research Council meeting on 26 June under the Swedish Presidency.

Later in the year, a conference entitled "Gender and Research" will be organized in Brussels 8-9 November 2001. This will allow discussion of the action plan for the period 2002-2006 on the basis of the results of the previous action plan.

The position of women in science
History of the women and science activity
How and why has the European Commission become involved
Reasons for under-representation
Mainstreaming gender equality
Measuring women's participation
Shaping Scientific policy

Key data

· Expert group on "women and science" established 1998;
· Women and Science unit created in DG Research, January 1999;
· Commission presented a Communication on "Women and science: mobilising women to enrich European research", February 1999;
· "Helsinki group" - first meeting of the "Women and Science" national civil servants group 29-30 November 1999;
· ETAN (European Technology Assessment Network) report "Science policies in the European Union: promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality", officially presented 23 November 1999.

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