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Completing the obstacle course

The reason there are fewer women in the top jobs is because they are no longer in the running. The phenomenon of the leaky pipeline is common in the world of science. Many more women than men fail to stay the course. It is mainly from the post-doctoral stage - the key moment when a career really begins, and when it is important to raise funds and to be published to gain the recognition of one's peers - that women leave the research field.

For those women who do continue, professional recognition (with differences depending on the country, university and/or discipline)
is far from automatic. A study carried out at the Italian National Research Council looked at how long it took for researchers to reach the top of their profession. It found that after ten years, 26% of men had been promoted to the top grade - research director - as against only 13% of women.

Who judges whom?

Throughout their careers, scientists are forever being judged by other scientists. In obtaining grants, funds and posts, researchers are subject to peer review. It is also between themselves that they judge the respective quality of their publications and their work. 'This kind of evaluation rests on the idea that researchers are best qualified to judge their peers. However, it also rather naively assumes that they are immune to the dominant prejudices in society at large and are able to make perfectly objective judgements,' states the Commission report.

Does this therefore mean that the under-representation of women in scientific structures must be offset by means of a quotas policy? Many believe such a mechanism is needed to ensure fairness on scientific committees, evaluation panels and other decision-making bodies. A number of Scandinavian countries respect a quota of at least 40% per gender on their national bodies and committees.

Peer group partiality

Two Swedish scientists, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, recently set the cat among the pigeons with their analysis of how the Swedish Medical Research Council makes its evaluations. They noticed that a man was twice as likely as a woman to obtain a post-doctoral post.
Men also received better appraisals for the same performance.
This revelation resulted in the replacement of the Council's management team, the awarding of grants now depending on a much more impartial evaluation. In the Netherlands, a study on the same subject, this time looking at the Organisation for Scientific Research and the Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW), revealed a much more balanced situation.


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Women and science