The march towards equality

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

How present are women in Europe’s science and research? It is less than a decade ago that statistics with a gender breakdown were first used to evaluate the situation. The measurement of their under-representation is due to the work of the Helsinki Group that embarked upon the vast exercise of collecting the data from across the Member States as a means of rendering visible the ‘quota’ of women in research. That was in 1999, the year the Union launched its ‘Women and Science’ action plan.

These figures highlighted the three principal pitfalls in the path of women researchers. First, there is the leaky pipeline. While, at the outset, women are very much present in the research pipeline, many of them disappear along the way. When they do stay, they often come up against the glass ceiling, which is as real as it is invisible and whereby the choice jobs go to the men. At the same time, women can encounter another kind of obstacle: the sticky floor that restricts them to relatively uncreative tasks and prevents their scientific career from really taking off.

Many solutions have been proposed – and some implemented, notably through EU-backed projects – to overcome these obstacles: changes in science teaching, specific training or grants for women, mentoring, networks, etc. Yet the situation of women researchers remains fragile and their presence in positions of responsibility remains too rare (15 % of professorships, on average).

The conference Changing research landscapes to make the most of human potential. Ten years of EU activities in Women and Science, organised by the Commission, will analyse the results of this past decade and look at what remains to be done to accelerate this process towards equality. Special attention will be paid to the modernisation of universities and research institutes, a process underway in many European countries. This can represent a good opportunity to improve the working environment for both men and women researchers.

Announcements of policies for change tend to stress a number of keywords, such as autonomy, financial resources, competition and excellence, university-enterprise partnerships, intellectual ownership, etc. But few of these concepts are concerned with human resources – and even fewer with equality between men and women in these occupations. While the organisation of science and research is at the centre of the debate, it is the status of all scientists that needs to be rethought. The balance between private life and professional life, maternity and paternity leave, temporary possibilities for part-time or distance work, and ‘acceptable’ working hours are all desired by upcoming generations. Such changes in status would remove stereotypes and prejudices that continue to stand in the way of able women. This approach to the work of researchers favours gender mix and plural thinking as the basis of a new equality.