The talents of women of science

In 2008 the Danish MEP Britta Thomsen drew up an own-initiative report on the role of women in science. It is a field where discrimination and under-representation remain, despite the efforts of the European bodies.

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
Britta Thomsen – “We must find counter-measures to the present system and its traditions that very often positively discriminate in favour of men.”
Britta Thomsen – “We must find counter-measures to the present system and its traditions that very often positively discriminate in favour of men.”

What were your motivations when, last year, you decided to look at the issue of women and science?

I believe we must do something about a labour market that is still very marked by gender inequalities. The starting point was simple. In the EU, women make up more than half of all higher education students but, when you look further down the line at public sector researchers and scientists, this figure is just 35%. If you then look at the number of women holding senior posts at universities, the figure is a painful 15%. So what is happening in the lives of these women? Where are they disappearing to? It is the well-known ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, meaning that women researchers, although relatively numerous at the outset, become progressively thinner on the ground in the course of a scientific career. They choose other options or they remain at a level that sidelines them from the most interesting jobs and the decision-making bodies.

Yet in this so-called knowledge society, access to knowledge is crucial. The Amsterdam Treaty and the Lisbon Strategy highlighted the need for equality between men and women on this point. But in practice it is still far from being the case and we must not accept this situation because it is quite simply undemocratic. It is this persistence of inequality that caused me to look deeply into the subject and to make some proposals.

But when one speaks of the knowledge society, there are clearly economic considerations in mind…

The other reason, indeed, that justifies an increased presence of women in science and research is of an economic order. There are 400 000 European researchers in the United States while here we are facing a painful shortage of scientists. Europe is going to have to recruit an additional 700 000 researchers over the coming years. So can we really afford to do without one half of our brain power? If we do not act to confront this global competition we will have human resources problems. It is ultimately a question of simple common sense.

Around the year 2000, Europe produced a lot of texts on the issue of ‘women and science’. Ten years later, one has the impression that the situation has changed very little. Why is this?

Because we do not have the legislation! Europe has a lot of ideas, action plans, but no genuine legislation. The challenge today is to translate these proposals into concrete and effective measures.

Let me give you an example. Personally, I am in favour of a quotas policy because we can see that the imbalance is not changing. In Norway, the minister responsible for establishing the quotas for company management bodies tells me that men manoeuvre to keep women off these bodies but that also women are reluctant to take on these responsibilities. So we should say to these women – and as early as possible, starting at school – that we need their skills.

Which leads us to the question of sexist stereotypes…

We are immersed in these perceptions from dawn to dusk. They are so deeply rooted in us! These stereotypes encourage the maintenance of specific male and female roles and the segregation of men and women at work. According to these prejudices, the typically male characteristics are an interest in things technical, analy tical abilities, prioritising the career, professional ambition, the ability to make oneself heard, domination, egoism and the desire to ‘impress the hierarchy’. On the other hand, women are credited with liking children, being interested in family, favouring harmony and being understanding, emotional and altruistic.

To prepare girls for a scientific career we must work on these perceptions from a very early age. The support and encouragement of the family, as well as of teachers, is a major asset in this respect. We also quite often see that women students of science and engineering tend to have one or even both parents working in these disciplines.

hIsn’t this question of the presence of women in science slowly starting to be understood more clearly? And if not, what needs to be done to put it firmly on the agenda?

I do not think that this question is perceived clearly everywhere… In areas of work that are very strongly male-dominated, such as certain university faculties, it is not easy to get men to recognise the existence of the problem of under-representation of women. This question is not a part of their world. Acting to increase awareness is therefore a first, and far from small, step.

Beyond that, I believe certain research funds or grants should be reserved for women.

Another crucial proposal found in the report approved by the European Parliament, is to act on the composition of the assessment groups and selection committees, which should include at least 40% women. This would have an impact in terms of recruitment and career.

At present, as I was saying, very few women rise to the post of professor, with many giving up along the way due to the lack of promotion possibilities. This quota measure is also a way of exerting pressure on the work environment – and thus on mentalities. We can see the effects in certain countries. In Italy, for example, physics is a field where women researchers are particularly present whereas in Denmark there is still such a sexist climate in this discipline that women want out…

Another avenue worthy of exploration is to act on the definition of excellence and of what constitutes a ‘good researcher’. Women researchers often make their contribution to the world of science through the different perspectives they bring or their choice of research subjects not necessarily attractive to men. In this way they bring diversity to research.

In short, I am in favour of positive discrimination in favour of women even if this is not an end in itself. We must find counter-measures to the present system and its traditions that very often positively discriminate in favour of men!

Will the ideas developed in your report be found in the next Framework Programme?

The Eighth Framework Programme for Research does not yet exist and will be a job for the next legislature. But the gender dimension will clearly be present. It is for us to lay down the rules and set aside the funding that will improve the situation and enable more women to find their place in research and to feel comfortable there.

Kirstine de Caritat


Read more

The EP’s avenues for action

«© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

On 21 May 2008, the European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality adopted Britta Thomsen’s report on women and science.

The report assesses the position of women scientists and concludes that the principle of equality is far from being a reality, despite the progress made since 1999 when the Council passed a resolution on women and science.

The European Parliament’s new report sets out a series of ideas and proposals to combat sexist prejudices and change the culture on the decision-making bodies of research institutions. New avenues for action are proposed in a number of directions. Some are designed to facilitate the careers of female researchers so that they can look after their children without paying the price professionally, in particular through more flexible working hours and career breaks. Others are aimed at reinforcing the idea of role models, i.e. ‘model’ women scientists able to give encouragement to young girls embarking on studies in science or engineering and who could participate in the networks of women researchers that the Commission and Member States are invited to strengthen. These networks are a vital means of attracting more women to scientific careers and of encouraging them to participate in political debate and to improve their professional development.

European Parliament website:

Website of the European Parliament Women’s Committee: