Drive to integrate the gender dimension in science
Disparities in gender equality in science and innovation constitute a major issue as women in science are under-represented in almost all European countries. However, the European Commission has set up a number of initiatives to change this and encourage more women in science. These include 'Science in Society', which provides financial support to research organisations for establishing gender equality plans. Whilst the European Research Council (ERC) are working to inspire female talent to apply for grants. Likewise, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MCA) encourage women to work in research while also helping to address the balance between career and family life. Through this initiative, nearly 40 % of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellows funded so far under the EU's current research Framework Programme (FP7) are women.
Then there are the initiatives specifically targeted at young girls to encourage them to pursue a career in science. These include the United Kingdom's WISE Campaign ('Women into Science, Engineering and Construction') and the UKRC ('The UK Resource Centre for Women in SET'), which helps organisations to inspire women and girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as pathways to exciting and fulfilling careers.
At the recent European Gender Summit, scientists discussed the latest gender research evidence and showcased examples of initiatives aimed at achieving structural change and improving the quality of research and innovation. Professor Teresa Lago, member of the European Research Council (ERC) Scientific Council, and chair of its gender balance working group, spoke on the integration of gender equality recommendations into the ERC’s practice.
Whilst keeping to its core principle of funding excellence alone, without any quotas, the ERC wishes to see more excellent women researchers participate and succeed in its grant competitions. Professor Teresa Lago says; ‘The imbalances between men and women researchers in Europe in general are unfortunately, but not surprisingly, mirrored in the ERC competitions. This is a matter of concern to the ERC Scientific Council and we monitor this issue carefully. Recent figures show considerable differences between countries when it comes to how well women do in our calls. We encourage countries to spare no efforts in inspiring female talent to apply for ERC grants and reviewing the opportunities for women to develop successful research careers.’
In the analysis of its calls, the ERC has found marked variations in terms of gender balance, not only between the ERC schemes (Starting Grants and Advanced Grants), but also across countries.
After the completion of 10 ERC calls, around a fifth of over 3 000 ERC grantees are women, with a substantially higher share in the Starting Grant scheme (early-career researchers) – on average 24 % women grantees – compared to 12 % in the Advanced Grant competitions (senior researchers). These relatively low percentages are partly due to the lower proportion of women applying to the ERC calls. To date, women applicants represent an average of 29 % for the Starting Grants and 14 % for the Advanced Grants. The gender balance in the two ERC schemes corresponds to the situation in science in Europe, both for early-career and senior researchers. But these figures can be seen as encouraging as they point to a demographic shift towards a greater contribution of women to frontier research.
A closer analysis reveals quite considerable variations among countries in terms of male and female applicant performance in the two ERC schemes. In certain countries, such as Germany, Austria and Finland, female Advanced Grant applicants outperform their male colleagues in terms of success rate (the proportion of applications selected for funding). However, the opposite is observed in the case of the Starting Grants for these countries.
Furthermore, the success rate for women in the Starting Grant calls is lower than that of the male applicants. This gender difference is more striking than what is observed for the Advanced Grant calls. Regarding gender balance in the research teams set up by the ERC grantees, recent estimates show very positive figures; around 38 % of team members are women.
The ERC (the 'Ideas' specific programme) was set up by the EU under the FP7. It has a total budget of EUR 7.5 billion (2007–2013). Last year, the European Commission proposed a substantial increase in the ERC's budget for 2014 to 2020 under the new Framework Programme, 'Horizon 2020'.
The ERC is currently funding two studies, one on gender mainstreaming and one to assess differences in career paths and working environments for women and men – a factor that may account for the greater challenges faced by women scientists in competing for ERC grants.
By the end of FP7, it is estimated that the ERC will have funded over 4 000 grantees, and will have supported over 24 000 team members, including nearly 6 800 doctoral students and nearly 9 000 postdoctoral researchers.