Brussels, 22 Oct 2003
Although some 30% of European S&T graduates are women, industry employs only half that proportion in its labs. A series of EU-backed reports delves into the reasons for this and what companies are doing to tackle the problem.
Hilde Delrue is one of a rare breed - a woman metallurgist. But the young materials engineer has proved her mettle to her co-workers and is casual about her success as only one of a handful of women rising through the research ranks at Belgian multinational Bekaert.
"Since the start of my university studies, when only one in five students was a woman, men have been in the majority. But this has never bothered me," she observes in a special EU publication entitled 'Women in Industrial Research (WIR) - Good practices in companies across Europe'. "But I [have] never encountered any prejudice. It just took these experienced lab analysts some time to get accustomed to having a woman who was also younger than them as their 'boss'."
Her employer, Bekaert, has been pushing ahead in recent years with schemes to cross the gender barrier, yet the number of female researchers at the company remains persistently low. Out of a pool of 78 academic-level researchers, only five are women.
One of the major problems, according to the firm, is its unglamorous bread-and-butter business. "Steel wire drawing and metal transformation does not appeal that much, even to technicians and academics," admits Ignace Lefever, Bekaert's technology liaison officer. Another problem is supply of talent. "Less than 10% of graduates with a masters in mechanical engineering or material sciences are women," notes Lefever.
Wake up call
More than 350 participants from over 40 countries gathered in Berlin to discuss 'WIR - speeding up changes in Europe' and to hammer out possible action plans to promote the presence of women in industrial research. In addition to the good practice report, two other documents were presented at the conference: a High Level Expert Group's report entitled 'WIR - a wake up call for industry' and a statistical study.
Although the numbers are still low, the reports highlight that industry is taking its responsibility to get more women into labs seriously and companies are putting into practice measures ranging from the run-of-the-mill, such as flexitime working, to the more outlandish, including in-house theatre productions highlighting gender issues.
"Women in industrial research are a neglected resource. They account for only 15% of the 500 000 researchers working in industry," Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said. "If Europe is to achieve its aim [of] invest[ing] 3% of its GDP in research by 2010, we need to mobilise all resources."