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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Cross-disciplinary projects > Women and science: Engendering European research culture > Naseem Theilgaard
Graphic element Naseem Theilgaard: leading the way in advanced biotechnologies
    08-11-2001
 
Naseem Theilgaard

While women are still underrepresented in the sciences, some are making significant inroads, contributing in a major way to European industrial and technological advancement. Naseem Theilgaard works in the department of plastics technology at the Danish Technological Institute in Taastrup. She is currently leading three Commission-funded projects aimed at developing new materials and technologies for medical applications.

"From the Scandinavian perspective, it is clear today that to live comfortably a family needs two incomes," says Theilgaard, "but whereas in the past women often worked simply to help feed the family, more and more we want to be satisfied in our work as well, and that means being able to do something interesting and important." No one could reasonably dispute the importance of Theilgaard's work. Worldwide demand for orthopaedic appliances, fracture fixation devices, artificial prostheses and joint implant replacements is exploding. As the population ages, people are living and staying physically active longer than ever before. Along with this comes the increased risk of accidents and trauma, joint diseases and anatomical degenerative disabilities, many of which require medical and surgical intervention.

An impressive series of contributions
 

Under Theilgaard's leadership, the BRIMAS project is aimed at developing bioresorbable bone implants. Using injection moulding techniques, partners, including research, academic and industrial entities, are producing composite implants of complex design for stabilisation after fracture. Another project, now completed, entitled "Injection moulded functionally graded ceramics for biomedical applications" took a similar approach to the development of a composite ceramic spacer for insertion between and fusion of adjacent vertebrae in the spine. Finally, the PORELEASE project is concerned with the development of new synthetic bone graft materials. "In previously male-dominated scientific areas such as medicine, pharmacology, and chemical engineering," says Theilgaard, "the number of women is now growing exponentially. We are more and more present in classrooms and laboratories, and at high-level meetings and conferences, but there is still, undoubtedly, a 'glass ceiling', a level above which very few women advance. The top ranks in academia and industry remain heavily dominated by men and we can still see discrimination against women in areas where the 'old boys club' mentality lingers on. When women do manage to break into these areas, they are usually single women and they have to fight and succeed according to the established male-defined rules."

 
Getting where we want to be
 

There is one fundamental reality which sets women apart from men and which has been used as a justification for keeping women out of male-dominated roles. Women bear children. "Childbearing age for women does not correspond to the time of qualification for high-level positions," says Theilgaard. "Today, a Ph.D. degree is a prerequisite for any person expecting to rise within the sciences. This takes about nine years to achieve from the time one leaves secondary school, after which you are expected to move into a post-doctoral position and start accumulating experience. The training and early professional periods, when people are in their twenties and early thirties, are typically very labour- and time-intensive. So when exactly is a woman supposed to have her children?" "We need to provide more support for young women who choose to become mothers while still in training, including flexible training programmes and better childcare facilities. We could also think about appropriate financial support for students with young families. I come back as well to the question of social stigma. There should be no negative social impact associated with having children while still at university. In short, we need to create conditions under which both men and women can advance and be productive without giving up their rights to a family."

 
EU action - speaking out
 

"I think that getting the discussion going on a Europe-wide level is certainly a good thing, but there are dangers as well. Raising questions and encouraging women to achieve more in the sciences brings with it the risk of reverse discrimination. I can't imagine feeling a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I obtained my job just because I'm a woman. We need a level playing field, not unfair advantages. In some situations women may indeed be less able to perform, because of the physical demands, for example, in a menial job. In such cases, norms should be established based on the job requirements and anyone who is qualified or unqualified, man or woman, should be treated accordingly."

 
An impressive series of contributions
Getting where we want to be
EU action - speaking out
     

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