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Gender and Research

Women are underrepresented in many fields, professions and levels of science and technology in Europe. Addressing this gender imbalance is one of the key policy and research priorities of the Science in Society (SIS) Programme. The challenge also remains at the top of the agenda for the European Commission and continues to harness support from the Council of the European Union.

Cooperation with EU Member States - The Helsinki Group on Women in Science

On 24 November 2009, The Helsinki Group on Women in Science , composed of representatives from all EU Member States and associated countries, marked its 10th anniversary with a formal meeting in Brussels, Belgium. At the meeting, the position paper, 'Gender and Research Beyond 2009' , was formally approved.

The paper contains future recommendations for both the European Commission and the Helsinki Group itself to further address the underrepresentation of women at all levels in scientific research. Upon receiving the paper, Commission President José Barroso assured the Helsinki Group that 'gender balance and the promotion of research and development are two issues of major importance for the current and future Commission.'

On 26 May 2010, the Council of the European Union reiterated its support to women in European science and technology at the Competitiveness Council . The Council acknowledged the work undertaken by the European Commission and the need to initiate a cultural and structural change in universities and research organisations. It highlighted in particular the need to include gender issues in research as a way to create new knowledge and stimulate innovation. The emphasis was on improving the effectiveness and impact of research, and on the barriers to gender equality as regards learning, employment and career progress (particularly in science and technology).

Gender in research

Gender-related issues can be fundamental to research proposals submitted to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Examples of the range of issues that are relevant to a variety of scientific and technological fields are highlighted here.

  • Gender differences are relevant in health research for combating diseases, and in the fundamental research on genomics and its applications for health.
  • With regard to information technology (IT), gender disparities exist at both user level and in the labour market. By assuming that IT is neutral, biases can enter into research and development (R&D) that can have a negative impact on gender equality.
  • Gender-specific needs can be relevant to the development of materials for use in the biomedical sector.
  • Gender differences can exist in relation to the health of food products, and be relevant to the epidemiology of food-related diseases and allergies.
  • Gender differences are relevant in the design and development of sustainable technologies, and in sectors such as transport.
  • There are differences in gender roles and responsibilities that are relevant to sustainable development research (e.g. land management, agricultural and forest resources, and water cycle).
  • Significant gender dimensions can also exist in developments towards a knowledge-based society, and in the new forms of relationships between citizens and institutions in Europe.

Lessons learnt from the Monitoring Studies conducted during the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) showed that the integration of gender aspects into research content was hampered in two ways: the concept was not that well understood, and this lack of clarity meant that it was sometimes difficult to identify practical ways to address the gender dimension in research. As a result, gender toolkits were developed under FP7 to build gender capacity within the scientific research community, and identify good and bad practices in relation to gender research.

Structural change of research institutions

Since FP7 began, the European Commission has supported actions in pursuit of change (both cultural and structural) in the way gender and diversity are managed in universities and research organisations. When applying for projects, universities and research bodies are expected to cooperate on common actions in order to implement the best systemic organisational approaches to increase the participation and career advancement of women researchers.

Institutions are encouraged to exchange best practices and create action plans that address essential structural changes, tackle specific organisational problems, and make better use of diversity. Some of these actions may include:

  • recruitment, promotion and retention policies;
  • updated management and research assessment standards;
  • course content development;
  • leadership development;
  • supporting policies for dual career couples;
  • returning schemes after career breaks.

On 26 May 2010, the Council of the European Union recommended that EU Member States be mobilised to develop appropriate policy support initiatives to support women in European science and technology. In February 2011, a group of high level experts has been brought together in order to identify the most appropriate means to reinforce activities for a better representation and retention of women in universities and research institutions at all levels of their scientific career. The group was tasked to summarise its work in a report ( 5.49MB) which would feed into the discussions on a recommendation to the Member States

Women in industrial research

The WiST2 (Women in Science and Technology) working group brings together private companies and representatives from the academic world to discuss the presence and working conditions of women in private sector research. The group focuses on reducing the 'leaky pipeline' for women in science and technology, and on building the business case for work-life balance.

Several studies have been published in the past, including Women in Science and Technology - Creating Sustainable Careers. Coming up on the agenda of the WiST2 working group is an identification of best practices in Europe and an overview of initiatives to identify and promote a new working culture and environment in research and technology.

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