Female research dropouts threaten Europe's targets

Call for structural changes to help the EC meet its ambitious recruitment goals. Jack Grove reports

September 8, 2011



Credit: Science Photo Library
Missing heads: just 13 per cent of European institutions are led by women


A failure to retain female researchers remains a major barrier to recruiting an extra 1 million researchers by 2020, a leading European official has warned.

Stefaan Hermans, head of the European Commission's research and innovation unit, said too many female postgraduate researchers were dropping out of a research career because entry-level jobs were "precarious" and unsuited to family life.

Speaking this week at an international conference in Manchester organised by the research career development body Vitae, Mr Hermans said the lack of women in the profession could frustrate the commission's efforts to recruit an extra 1 million researchers by 2020.

Progress on improving working conditions for women had been "very slow and piecemeal", he admitted. "About 110,000 doctoral degrees were awarded (to men and women) last year", he said. "If we are training them and do not see them appear in the labour market, why is it? We know relatively little about what is happening."

The high dropout rate could also explain why relatively few women were running research organisations, he suggested. "Fifty-nine per cent of people who graduate from university in Europe are women and 49 per cent of PhD students are women. But only 13 per cent of heads of institutions are women."

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Hermans added: "We see the potential inflow of female researchers is very high, but the outflow is high too.

"If we do not intervene here, raise awareness and look at structural changes, we are wasting a lot of resources, as well as the aspirations these women have for their lives."

Mr Hermans said absolute numbers of researchers in Europe were relatively high - 1.6 million full-time equivalent researchers and 2.2 million in total - but these still lagged behind other major economic powers in per capita terms. There were six researchers per 1,000 employees in Europe, compared with nine in the US and 11 in Japan.

Expanding their numbers would be vital for finding answers to the problems of climate change, an ageing population and food security, he added.

Pam Denicolo, director of the University of Reading's Graduate School for the Social Sciences, told the conference that rules to promote diversity would be incorporated into the UK's research excellence framework.

"There are still some diehards and blinkered individuals against it, but they are on the decrease," she said. "Research students are not just white, male, full-time, young people, but come from very diverse backgrounds. It's thrilling to know the REF is recognising that."

Other speakers addressed the problem of recruiting and retaining promising researchers following the end of the ring-fenced Roberts funding for career development, which will instead be paid for through higher postgraduate fees.

Paul Hagan, director of research and innovation at the Scottish Funding Council, said Britain's economic future depended on attracting top talent to research. "The most important thing is that we produce the quality of postgraduate researchers who can contribute to business."

Iain Cameron, head of the research careers and diversity unit at Research Councils UK, said research council funding was being frozen, not cut, but some early careers development cash would be lost.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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