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Making the grade

50% of first-year students in Europe are women. Although they show a preference for the arts, social sciences and economics, a growing number of women are opting for science and technical subjects. But what then? What becomes of those who see their future in scientific research?

'Women believe that success in scientific research has nothing to do with gender and are ready to be judged by the same objective criteria as their male colleagues. In return, they expect to enjoy the same career opportunities, the same sources of finance and the same advantages as men at the various stages in their career,' wrote Mary Osborn, a professor at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen (Germany), in a letter to Nature, in 1992.

Professor Osborn is co-author of the report entitled Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality, published by
the European Commission (see Science policies in the European Union: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality), which provides the first assessment to date of the role of women in European research. Apart from a number of characteristics specific to the world of science, the general picture which emerges from this evaluation is akin to that in other sectors of society. Women scientists earn less that their male counterparts. More of them are employed on short-term contracts. They rarely climb the ladder of success, and when they do it is more slowly and with more difficulty so that few women arrive in the top jobs. Not many women are awarded honorary distinctions or are members of eminent associations either.

The facts and figures

What role do women play in science? Are they more present in certain research fields? What shapes do their careers take? All questions where it is impossible to provide exact answers - or draw objective conclusions - without valid statistics. And that means statistics which take the gender factor into account, with criteria for measuring equality and inequality. Present data are too often incomplete and based on different collection methods, thereby preventing any reliable comparison.
The Nordic countries, however, pay special attention to the 'male-female' factor in their surveys. The Education in Sweden brochure, for example, presents comprehensive education data (from nursery school to adult education, including data on education budgets, etc.), in each instance providing a gender breakdown.


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"Go for it !". One of the posters in the campaign to boost awareness of science careers launched by the British Department of Trade and Industry's Promoting SET for Women Unit.
"Go for it !". One of the posters in the campaign to boost awareness of science careers launched by the British Department of Trade and Industry's Promoting SET for Women Unit.