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Putting policies to the test

Ten years after the first Women and Sciences action plan and the creation of the Helsinki Group by the Commission in 1999, what are the results and new policy lines in the fight against the under-representation of women in the European Research Area? Three recent studies (1) shed light on these two questions.


Named after the city where it was set up, in 1999, the Helsinki Group is a pioneering structure charged with tackling – and for the first time at the level of European comparisons – the issue of the representation of women in science. The first requirement was of course to have access to the facts and figures, which the Group’s national statisticians promptly set about compiling.

This collection and processing of the different national data was a response to the awareness, at European level, of the urgent need for women to make a greater contribution to science and technology. Meeting twice yearly – thereby constituting a forum for continuous exchange and discussion – the Helsinki Group put together, piece by piece, the highly irregular mosaic of the national situations of women scientists and the measures taken in their favour throughout Europe.

A decade’s record

In 2008, the Group published an important comparative study, Benchmarking policy measures for gender equality in science. This provides a comprehensive picture, for each country (EU members or otherwise), not only of the trends apparent in the available statistical data but also of all the devices in place to encourage more women to be involved in research and higher education. The picture that emerges is one of a great variety of situations, due in particular to the recent wave of EU enlargements.

The former communist countries are where the greatest proportion of women are employed in scientific structures, filling between 30% and 50% of jobs in the R&D sector compared with between 20 % and 35 % in the EU-15. In terms of research budgets, the picture is the reverse. The greater presence of women in the new Member States is often accompanied by very limited resources.

On the other hand, given what is happening in those countries most committed to the European Research Area, the report stresses in its conclusions that “one cannot expect that higherlevels of science and technology arising out of greater economic development will solve problems of gender inequality – indeed, left to ‘market forces’, the opposite would be the case. Thus attention to policy-making in this area becomes ever more essential as development proceeds, if gender and related gaps are not to widen.”

Mapping the maze

It is therefore time for a re-mobilisation based on the record of a decade that has seen the launch of many initiatives, studies and networks at European level as well as the implementation of specific national measures (quotas, paternity leave, budgets for women, etc.) in various Member States. Mandated by the Commission, a group of experts known as Women In Research Decision Making (Wirdem) set about reviewing, in the various European countries and research bodies, all the positive actions designed to correct the lack of women on bodies responsible for deciding on scientific policy, especially at the highest levels. In 2008 the group published its report entitled Mapping the maze that proposes adopting a new perspective on the whole question of “the power of scientific decision-making”.

Three themes emerge from the analysis. First the democratic demand for a fairer gender balance in managing research funding. This key objective – follow the money – is to arrive at a fair threshold of at least 40% in terms of representation on decision-making bodies for allocating research funding. A second policy line rests on the question of a much more egalitarian and transparent participation of women in appointment and recruitment procedures. As you move up the hierarchy of decision- making powers there is a need to combat the many practices that are very often based on informal networks and co-opting between largely male ‘peers’. The third paradigm on which the authors of Mapping the maze insist is to consider the management of gender equality as an element of quality manage ment. “It is important for the leadership of an organisation to be positive regarding gender equality – both in word and in deed.”

Transparency for the gatekeepers

In the wake of the Wirdem recommendations, a new group, Gender and Excellence, was set up to compile a systematic and analytical inventory of this issue of transparency in the access of women to research funding. Its conclusions, presented at the Prague Conference (2) under the title The Gender challenge in research funding, analyses the gender dimension and dynamic in all the mechanisms of public, national and institutional funding, from fundamental research to project implementation, including individual grants to researchers. This study covers 33 countries (the 27 Member States and the six associate countries – Croatia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey).

In this European financial landscape, a first group of Nordic ‘model pupils’ – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland – are distinctive for their ‘pro-active’ gender policies. But the situation is evolving in several countries where the representation of women had to date been mediocre. The study also notes the changes brought by recent policy measures in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain. In many countries the level of initiatives nevertheless remains lower.

Research funding decision-making involves numerous gatekeepers: members of national science and technology councils, funding organisation directors, managers, board members and staff members, members of evaluation committees and panels, and external reviewers. The Gender and Excellence experts stress that, in most cases, all these bodies “continue to be dominated by men, in some cases overwhelmingly so. All-male committees and evaluation panels still exist in many countries, even where the proportion of women in research is relatively high. The recruitment procedures, in particular for peer reviewers, whose choice may be crucial, are not clear.”

Having more women in the selection mecha nisms does not in any way mean that the proportion of women selected will increase. Other obstacles also exist in terms of the level of eligibility criteria that fail to take into account the constraints of family demands (maternity and child care) on female researchers when organising their scientific career.

At the very least, add the authors, “in addition to providing more equal access to defining the research agenda at all levels, better gender balance among gatekeepers demonstrates that women are full members of the system. It also offers women researchers more opportunities to learn how the funding system works, to become integrated into important networks.”

Didier Buysse

  1. See Information.
  2. Changing research landscapes to make the most of human potential, 10 years of EU activities in Women and Science – Conference organised by the Scientific Culture and Gender Issues Unit of the Research DG – Prague (CZ) – 14-15 May 2009.

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