On the shoulders of giantesses?

December 3, 1999

Women in science account for just three out of 170 living Nobel prizewinners and are severely underrepresented at every level. Martin Ince reports on an EC initiative to redress the balance.

There are two ways of achieving parity for women in European science, according to the experts who have just looked at the problem for the European Commission. One is to wait until about the year 2040, when on present trends men and women will be sharing the plum posts. The other is by more positive action.

Last week, a group of 14 distinguished women scientists from around the European Union produced the most comprehensive analysis ever of the waste of human potential caused by women's low status in European science. They called on the EC to include research in a new campaign to "mainstream" gender equality that could require institutions to alter their equality processes radically.

The group, chaired by Mary Osborn, a British biologist who works for the Max Planck Society in Gottingen, Germany, included Teresa Rees from the University of Cardiff and Anne McLaren from Cambridge.

Their report concludes that one part of the task, attracting women into science at university, is less pressing than might be imagined. In the United Kingdom, for example, most biology and medicine degrees go to women. Even engineering is not as all-male as it once was.

The problem is that beyond this point, every step up the academic ladder is easier for men than for women. The biggest drop is at the postdoctoral level, when most tenured jobs go to men. The upshot is that whatever the percentage of female undergraduates, only 10 per cent of professors are women in almost every subject.

Dominique Weis, a member of the panel and a professor of earth sciences in Brussels, described this as the "leaky pipeline" problem. Apart from the waste it creates, the dearth of senior academic women means that too few are involved in setting scientific priorities, running research institutions or deciding on the allocation of research funds. For example, the authors of the report - who were known formally as the Network on Women and Science of the European Technology Assessment Network (Etan) - found that the UK is about typical of the EU average in having only about 5 per cent of universities headed by women.

They point out that the European Science and Technology Assembly, which has 100 members to give top-level policy advice to the commission, has four women members. The Joint Research Centre, run by the commission's directorate general for research that commissioned the report, has an all-male board of governors.

At the more significant national level, the Etan group notes, research councils and analogous bodies that distribute research funds tend to be heavily dominated by men, who, for example, account for 79 of the 99 members of the UK research councils. Britain's biggest biomedical funder, the Wellcome Trust, was run by a woman until 1998, but now all ten of its trustees are men.

Elsewhere in the EU there are some high points, such as the Danish medical research council, with six women out of 15 members. But more typical is CNRS, the French research council, which has 40 scientific sections, 39 of which are chaired by men.

These odds mean the upper councils of European science are by and large male. In Europe and around the world, the gatekeepers of scientific prestige tend to be men, which is part of the reason (see box) why they win most of the prizes that honour top scientific achievement.

The Etan group found that this discrimination is at its most extreme at the sharp end, where money talks. Studies in Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere have revealed gender bias in research grant awards, in part complicated by women's lesser tendency, for contested reasons, to apply for them in the first place.

The solution to this problem, the Etan group says, involves going beyond existing efforts at promoting equal opportunities. They have called for science to be subjected to a new set of measures collectively termed "mainstreaming" that goes beyond the legal right to equality.

At the launch of their report, Anna Diamantopolou, the European commissioner for employment and social affairs, said this approach was essential to help close "a deficit as serious as the under-representation of women in politics".

If taken seriously, mainstreaming offers a way of attacking university employment practices that the Etan report describes as being "archaic and redolent of medieval apprenticeship systems characterised by patronage and nepotism". Its principles include an attack on the assumptions systems make about people and jobs. "Presenteeism" and the long hours culture is a key problem institutions need to think about in building mainstreaming


But there are other measures that can form part of rethinking how institutions treat female and male staff. Age bars discriminate against women because of career breaks for children and other caring. In 1997 the National Committee for Equal Treatment in the Netherlands found the use of age bars by the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Association for Scientific Research discriminated against women. They have been replaced by a new measure of "academic age" that allows for career breaks.

The Etan report also suggests "softer" measures that can make a difference. For example, who do visitors see when they look at the paintings in the senior common room, or read the university prospectus? What assumptions about people's family responsibilities do the conditions of travel grants and other awards make?

The Etan group points out that academe has a lot to learn from the private sector about good employment practices. In some companies managers' bonuses depended on the number of women they promoted in the year. There is also good practice outside Europe. The National Science Foundation discovered that refusing to fund meetings with no female speakers had a drastic effect on the organisers of scientific conferences.

The Etan report has direct financial implications for universities because of their persistent failure to deliver equal pay for women. Professor Osborn points to the conclusions of the Bett committee on UK academic pay, which said it would cost British universities Pounds 300 million a year to fulfil an obligation to pay equal wages to women for work of equal value.

But all concerned know the European Commission is likely to become more serious about gender equality throughout its work and its funding of external bodies. Philippe Busquin, commissioner for research, said last week that the Framework VI programme for research will take gender issues into account. The message is that the EU research money sought by all research managers will increasingly come with gender-equality strings attached.

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