Beyond pious wishes

Women make up just 18 % of the Union’s engineers and researchers, and just 7 % of inventors who register a patent. Their virtual absence from private R&D was confirmed by the Commission’s 2003 report entitled Women in Industrial Research: a Wake-Up Call to European Industry. So what is the situation today, six years later?

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

The general opinion is that progress has been slow, too slow, and above all slower than in the academic sector. Yet, nevertheless, things are changing. We are better informed as to why women find it difficult to build a career at private research centres. Good practices are emerging and spreading. Above all, companies are beginning to understand that greater gender mix in their R&D personnel is in their own interests.

Arguments in principle and in practice

There are two fundamental arguments with which to defend the notion that more women should be employed in industrial research. The first is a question of principle: as equality between citizens is one of the Union’s fundamental values, men and women with equal skills should have equal access to all jobs in science, in the private and public sector alike. The difficulty here is in applying the principle. Just as it is legitimate for public action to be based on these ethical principles, so too it is difficult to force companies to respect them – as long as they stop short of illegal discrimination of course. Thus the second argument, a resolutely pragmatic one, becomes necessary: more women must be employed in industrial research because their participation will help boost business performance and therefore European competitiveness.

Obstacles in their way

In a context in which more and more companies need to recruit talented young scientists among an ageing population, the under-representation of women is a waste. This is because women are fast becoming increasingly wellqualified. In 1999 they accounted for 30 % of PhDs in science (38 % of all doctorates). Four years later, this had risen to 34 % (43 % for all subjects combined). Denying access to such a pool of labour is tantamount to an economic aberration. Yet this is what is happening, and to an increasing extent moving up the career ladder. Although the statistics are not as comprehensive as for academic careers, there is clearly ‘leakage’ along the career path.

Ruth Graham, of Imperial College London, conducted around 40 interviews with women of all ages employed in private research. She identified at least three potential pitfalls. The first is self-exclusion, whereby women decide not to apply for jobs in those sectors that they know to be male-dominated, notably in information and communication technologies. The second is resignation or transfer to non-R&D positions at around the age of 30 when many women are starting or raising a family. The third is less well-known: Ruth Graham admitted having been “struck by the number of women who complain of the disastrous consequences for their career of becoming involved in programmes or studies on the subject of ‘women and science’. Such female researchers often find themselves isolated and sidelined within their companies, this often culminating in dismissal or resignation.”

One of the most insidious aspects of this inequality concerns promotion practices. As Irene de Pater, of Amsterdam University, explains: “It looks as though merit is the sole criterion. Researchers, whether men or women, who have successfully completed a sensitive mission are often rewarded with additional responsibilities.” But to whom are these sensitive missions entrusted in the first place? Much more often to men than to women! “Women are over-represented on projects that are not linked directly to fundamental R&D but rather to the accompanying marketing activities or customer relations,” admits the economist Laure Turner of the National School of Statistics and Economic Administration in Paris. Women scientists who manage to overcome obstacles that could lead to their departure from companies often end up in the ‘velvet ghettoes’ of communication or management services, far from the strategic heart of R&D.

A waste for society, these abandoned or restricted careers are also a waste for the businesses in question. Women who leave private research centres do not leave because their performance is subpar compared with their male colleagues, but because the company organisation forces them to choose between their work as a scientist and other aspects of their lives, particularly their private lives. “Due to the scale of investments in human resources by high-tech firms, it is in their own interests to adopt measures that permit a good balance between family and professional life if they want to retain their highly-skilled workers of both sexes,” explains Daniela Del Boca of Turin University.

What is performance based on?

Can this economic argument be taken further by claiming that a company that employs a lot of women is going to be more efficient? It is a question widely discussed among management researchers as it covers two issues.

The first is whether or not a link can be made between a company’s performance and the number of women among its senior managers. A study of 2 500 Danish firms – the most extensive of its kind in Europe – tends to suggest that this is indeed the case, but also urges caution: perhaps these businesses simply had more efficient HR management, with recruiting and/or promoting more women simply an aspect of this?

The second is whether or not mixed research teams are more efficient than teams made up primarily of persons of any one sex. Here too, the results are conflicting as they depend on the way the company manages the ‘gender mix’, in terms of gender as well as origin or training. The Shell Oil Group concluded that “diversity, and gender diversity in particular, has a favourable impact on a team’s performance if each of its members feels involved… but a nega tive impact otherwise.” Whatever the case, HR manage ment certainly plays a key role here.

These studies do not therefore provide a basis for affirming categorically that there is an ‘economic argument’ for employing women in industrial research – meaning, incidentally, that it remains important to defend the employment of women as a matter of principle. Nevertheless, they do show the great importance of good management in ensuring that women are able to contribute fully to a company’s success. There is also more to this than having child care facilities at the work place – or, in the future, care for the elderly – or organising ‘women’s days’ and other non-mixed initiatives where women can get together and speak freely of their difficulties at work. Useful as these undoubtedly are, they do not strike at the root of the problem, which is “the functioning of private life, which has suffered in recent decades but in connection with which companies have made very few changes to their organisation,” as Margo Brouns, of Groningen University, explains. She adds that “in many companies, the old image of the manager who can concentrate totally on his work because his wife takes care of all the domestic chores still prevails.”

Schlumberger, Infineon, Intel and many large European companies have taken note of the new situation created by the appearance of generations of highly qualified women scientists who have no intention of sacrificing their private life for their career. In response, they are increasing the schemes – distance working, part-time work, flexible working hours – that enable women to pursue careers to the same degree as their male colleagues, especially during their thirties when domestic demands are often the greatest. What is more, as more and more men are involved directly in bringing up their children, they would no doubt also welcome similar opportunities.

Mikhaïl Stein


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