Commitment is key to improving the role of women scientists in Central and Eastern Europe

July 21, 2004

Brussels, 20 Jul 2004

The Enwise (enlarge women in science to East) final report provides a much needed and detailed analysis of the role of women in science in Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) and the Baltic States, as well as a series of recommendations on how that role can be enhanced.

The report calls for action from a number of different stakeholders, most notably the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and national authorities. However, as one of the central figures in preparing the report explained to CORDIS News, the most essential condition for change is a commitment by all stakeholders to acknowledge the reality of the situation, as well as the need to improve it.

When asked which of the report's many recommendations she considered the highest priority, Brigitte Degen, the scientific officer responsible for Enwise activities within the Research DG's science and society directorate, said: 'I don't think that prioritisation is a key word in this case, as the recommendations are addressed to different stakeholders, and all are key players if any progress is going to be made. For example, the Commission cannot just decide to promote women in science in Central and Eastern European countries without any support from national policy makers.'

Offering an example of how vital such a commitment is to achieving results in gender issues, Ms Degen pointed to the legislation introduced by the new Member States while still candidates to join the EU: 'All of these countries have gender equality legislation as a result of the enlargement process, but few can find the required resources to implement the measures.'

Political and institutional commitment to gender issues is only part of the equation, however. Equally important is the need to create gender awareness among citizens in these countries, including the female population - a task made more difficult by the historical context of the region. 'Gender equality was a clear principle under the communism system, but even though it obviously failed in certain areas, there is still a reluctance to highlight gender issues on behalf of women as people believe it is unfair,' explained Ms Degen.

Indeed the evidence can be misleading, as the Enwise expert group that produced the report found out when they began their investigations in 1999. According to the Eurostat data available at that time, it was clear that in a number of CEECs the participation level of women in science was close to 50 per cent - far higher than in Western Europe. 'People thought this was good news, but in reality it wasn't. Most men had left the scientific arena because there was no money left in research. The women remained because there was no alternative, except unemployment,' said Ms Degen The harsh reality is that in those fields where one finds the highest proportion of women scientists, one also finds the lowest research budgets and the oldest infrastructure.

Alongside the relatively high participation rates of women in science in many of the countries examined in the Enwise report, there are many other examples of fundamental differences between their situation and that in Western Europe, and these are differences that Ms Degen is keen to acknowledge and preserve. 'The aim of this report is not to say: 'now that many of these countries are EU Member States, they must do what has already been done in the EU15.' The Communist system maintained an intellectual elite of women, which was never the case in certain Western or Southern European countries, and we do not want to throw away that history,' she said.

Indeed, when dealing with a group of countries as diverse as that covered by the Enwise report, it is hard not to notice the many differences that exist between them too. 'What we need to do is work as a group to try and find consensus, but at the same time recognise our many differences, be they cultural, historical or social,' Ms Degen added.

Turning to the future, and the process of implementing the recommendations contained within the report, Ms Degen points to a conference to take place in Tallinn, Estonia, in September, to introduce the report and its findings to a wider audience. At that event, Ms Degen is hoping that European and national decision makers will welcome the report, and show at least a willingness to implement its recommendations. She also believes that the conference represents an opportunity for a much wider audience of stakeholders to discuss and validate the report.

One key decision maker who has already thrown his weight behind the report is European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin: 'I will encourage a wide debate around [the report] and examine its recommendations carefully. But gender equality in European scientific research will only become a reality if action follows debate: may I invite each reader to reflect upon what she or he can do in this respect and then to take appropriate action!' he writes in the foreword to the report.

For her part, Ms Degen understands that the situation is unlikely to change overnight, but believes that it was vital to carry out such an exercise when they did. 'I'm not looking or expecting for all the recommendations to be implemented immediately - things won't change much in one or two years; this is a mid-term process. But there was an urgent need to map the process in these countries, so that we could avoid having to simply impose Western European remedies to the problem,' she concluded.

To access the Enwise final report, please consult the following web address: ce-society/highlights_en.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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