UK women get a raw deal

November 9, 2001

Conditions for British female scientists are among the toughest in Europe, according to research presented to the European Commission this week.

The initial findings of a review of national policies across 30 countries show that despite a majority of UK science undergraduates being female, the long-hours culture, low holiday entitlements and a lack of state-funded childcare - second only to Portugal - mean that few women stay in science.

Teresa Rees, professor of social science at Cardiff University, presented the first results from the Helsinki group to the "Gender and Research" conference in Brussels on Thursday.

She told The THES : "The UK government is not doing enough, although the Royal Society is starting to show an interest."

The Helsinki group identified Germany as having the most positive initiatives, putting substantial amounts of money into attracting trained female scientists back into the laboratory after a career break. Despite this, Professor Rees, who acted as the group's rapporteur, said the problems for women were the same throughout Europe.

"It doesn't matter which country, discipline or what legislation is in place, the proportion of women going through the academic hierarchy diminishes to less than 10 per cent of the professorial body," she said.

Almost 600 delegates representing 40 countries, which included associated non-member states, gathered in Brussels for the event.

The commission admitted it had failed to meet a target set in 1999 for 40 per cent of its scientific advisory committees and expert evaluation panels to be made up of women.

Philippe Busquin, commissioner for science, said he was aware women might find it difficult to spend a whole week in Brussels but added: "If we want to sustain progress across all areas, we need to encourage more women to apply to be evaluators."

David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, was due to represent the UK. He was expected to talk about the Athena project, the work of the Office of Science and Technology's unit to promote women scientists and a number of UK appointments of women, such as Julia Goodfellow to head the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and two research professorships from the Royal Society.

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