Women remain under-represented in decision-making positions in science. In life sciences such as biology and biochemistry, female PhD holders outnumber men but women hold just 20 % of senior positions within European research institutes, which is known as the 'leaky pipeline' phenomenon.
Since October 2015, the EU-funded LIBRA project has been working to improve gender equality within the EU-LIFE alliance – a group of 13 European life science research institutes. The project aims to improve their recruitment policies, support the career development of female staff, generate an inclusive environment and ensure that the gender dimension is considered in research.
LIBRA has studied gaps in gender equality within 10 partner institutes in order to develop tailor-made gender equality plans, focusing on how the research centres could overcome their specific challenges.
The effort has paid off, with the 10 partner institutes hiring 18 women to fill leadership positions. 'The most tangible result has been the recruitment of women into faculty positions at a much higher rate than before,' says LIBRA project coordinator Isabelle Vernos, a senior group leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Spain. 'I'm very proud that several institutes with a historically poor record in gender equality have hired women for senior positions.'
Vernos adds: 'I think there has been real change because there is clear commitment and awareness from the top spheres of each institutes – directors are very aware and they have been very supportive.'
Networks for female leadership
LIBRA uses poster campaigns within the research institutes to raise awareness about gender inequality and the importance of the work-life balance.
All staff and scientists have been invited to take part in workshops and discussions on gender equality and work-life balance and the project also organises training sessions and distributes a useful handbook aiming to help human resources staff – who are in charge of the hiring process – identify unconscious bias and learn ways to overcome this when assessing job applicants.
Because women tend to drop out of academia after studying for their PhDs, LIBRA has also created a network of 20 young female post-doctorates from participating institutes.
The women involved receive leadership training and are able to support each other at this critical point in their careers. Since joining the network, eight women have been hired to permanent research positions.
Changing society, starting with science
'Recruiting more women is very important because this changes the way the institute functions,' says Vernos. 'We just have to ensure this project continues to grow.'
While all 10 research institutes have seen improvements since LIBRA started, Vernos wants the project to have a wider impact.
To that end, LIBRA has been providing training to 32 people from 29 other research institutes so they can develop their own gender equality plans. It has also made a variety of resources – from its research to its recruitment guidelines ¬– available for free online.
LIBRA has also created a learning platform or 'Moodle' – soon to be available online – to demonstrate to PhD students the importance of including gender as a variable within scientific research.
'Gender diversity leads to better and more creative science,' says Vernos. 'The consideration of sex increases the quality and reproducibility of scientific data, will make medication more effective and clinical trials more reliable. In the end, it means better value for money.'
She adds: 'Increased awareness about gender equality will create change throughout our society, not only in the workplace.'