Gender equality in research: reason to be cautiously optimistic

Fresh data from the European Commission shows there is an increase in new female graduates. But a lack of women in leadership roles is a continuing problem, says Curt Rice, who leads Norway's committee on gender balance in research

Curt Rice on gender equality in European science

Preliminary data published by the European Commission this week shows the numbers of women working in research and innovation is slowly increasing – if not particularly quickly, at least moving in the right direction.  

“One can be cautiously optimistic,” says Curt Rice, head of Norway's gender balance in research committee. “There’s progress; slow progress.”

A total of 36 per cent of research organisations in Europe – mostly found in the Western part of the continent – had adopted gender parity plans by 2013. Between them, these organisations employed 70 per cent of the staff employed by the 1,200 organisations covered by the data in She Figures, which the Commission releases every three years.

The figures reveal that progress towards gender equality depends on the study field. In medical and agricultural sciences, women are closing the gap with men, but they still have a way to go before they draw level with men in engineering and technology studies. This is not a new story, Rice notes.

Although women as a group are better qualified, with more and more going on to do doctorates, they remain notably scarce at the highest levels. The proportion of female heads of higher education institutions went up between 2010 and 2014 in 15 of the 20 EU countries for which there are data, but only in Serbia and Sweden were half or more higher education institutions led by women by 2014.

Women ran less than 40 per cent of national scientific boards in 14 of 22 EU countries in 2014. Only in Sweden, Luxembourg and the Netherlands did the proportion approach 50 per cent. In France, only 10 per cent of institutes had a female head.

The scarcity of women in top posts in Irish universities prompted the government to launch an investigation this week – fittingly enough headed by the former Research Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

“The story behind the numbers is cultural,” says Rice. “Not surprisingly, gender equality at work reflects gender equality at home. In Ireland [for example], there’s still a traditional family structure.” 

This is only preliminary data: the full report will need to fill in all the context. “We’re still waiting to see how the numbers look at each career level,” Rice said.

“Women leave research careers in greater numbers than men at every level – call it the leaky pipeline problem. I expect we might still see this.”

EU’s role in gender equity     

Policy interventions could speed up the achievement of gender equity, which is where the current Research Commissioner comes in. Carlos Moedas has said the issue is one of his priorities and his team is currently working up a strategy.

Speaking at a meeting of research ministers Wednesday in Luxembourg, the Commissioner was asked if he had any concrete plans, for example, the use of quotas for example. He parried the question, saying, “More needs to be done in Europe,” and offering the “Nordic model” as the one to emulate. 

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland top the table in the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Report, which measures how well countries are doing at removing the obstacles that hold women back.

“In Scandinavia, we like bureaucracy so we’ve made lots of plans, says Rice. “It’s a prerequisite for action.” His adopted country is celebrating the tenth anniversary of a decision to reserve 40 per cent of board positions on public limited companies for women. “It’s widely accepted as a great success,” he said.

But unleashing the full Nordic effect, which includes more equitable distribution of labour at home, more shared participation in childcare and better work-life balance for both women and men, is certainly beyond the EU’s policymaking scope.

There was no suggestion of introducing EU research quotas in a recent report adopted by the European Parliament, and it is uncertain whether it would be politically feasible in Brussels to suggest it, but there were plenty of ideas on how to improve the current situation.

There was the simply practical: parliamentarians calling for better networking opportunities for female scientists, as well as campaigns to encourage women to pursue scientific careers.

But there was also a suggestion that gender equality plans should be considered as a precondition for research institutions’ access to public funding.

Rice said this is a particularly interesting idea, which put him in mind of the UK’s Athena SWAN charter, set down 10 years ago by senior female researchers who wanted to do something positive for employment prospects for women in science.  

The charter gives bronze, silver and gold awards to institutions and departments that demonstrate increasing levels of good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women. At least one funder has made a commitment to award research funding only to universities that hold a charter mark, which has helped to drive up participation in the scheme in the UK.

“It’s a model programme,” said Rice. “We’re asking ourselves whether we should develop it.”

European Research Council example

If there have been some ham-fisted attempts by the EU in the past to address the problem of gender imbalance – the Commission’s disastrous ‘Science: It's a Girl Thing!’ launch in 2012 will live long in the memory – it has also taken some influential steps.

One example is the commitment to 40 per cent female participation in its advisory structures for Horizon 2020, the EU's research programme for 2014–2020. 

Then there are actions taken by the EU’s premier fundamental science funder, the European Research Centre (ERC). Under the leadership of then ERC chairwoman Teresa Lago, in 2010 the science funding body changed eligibility criteria for applicants who have children. For example, a scientist with one child who obtained her PhD eight years ago can apply for a starting grant, even though the general rule is that only those who received their PhD between two to seven years ago are eligible. It is small but note-worthy, said Rice.

While only around 20 per cent of the ERC’s 5,000 grantees have been women, “to their credit, they’ve been public about this,” Rice said. “Getting the figures out there makes a difference. It’s an important part of the process.”

The ERC is looking into new, gender-blind ways to screen the proposals it receives, said Rice. ”They’re working on creative ways to do this, which is very hard. It’s impressive – sends an important message.”
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Related subjects: Research, Science, Gender equality