Closing the gender gap by M. Wutte, Nature 2007

Closing the gender gap.

Across Europe, women in science are typically outnumbered by men at every level. Magdalena Wutte explores how institutions, networking organizations and women themselves can help correct the imbalance.

Magdalena Wutte source: NatureNature 448, 101-102 (July 2007) doi:10.1038/nj7149-101a
Closing the gender gap

Magdalena Wutte1

Magdalena Wutte is a former intern in Nature’s Munich office. To discuss this article, contact the editor

Across Europe, women in science are typically outnumbered by men at every level. Magdalena Wutte explores how institutions, networking organizations and women themselves can help correct the imbalance.


According to the European Union (EU), this year is the ‘European Year of Equal Opportunities for All’. This declaration, along with a slew of anti-discrimination legislation, suggests that the EU recognizes there’s much to be done in the drive towards equality, as the numbers attest to. In the case of science, women remain under-represented, particularly at higher academic levels. And this disparity cannot simply be attributed to a lack of women pursuing science in the past: bias, it seems, remains.The EU has not been short of initiatives to try to reverse this trend � and progress is being made. Several groups have been established to improve networking among women, but governments and lobby groups can only do so much. Academic institutions � and women themselves � have their part to play in increasing women’s participation in the scientific arena.”The situation has improved a lot in the past 20 years,” says Daniela Corda, director for research and development of the Consorzio Mario Negri Sud, a major research institution in Santa Maria Imbaro, Italy. But, she adds, growing awareness and an absence of open discrimination are not sufficient to substantially increase the number of women in higher academic positions.The most recent figures available suggest that Europe is still dealing with significant attrition by women after they’ve earned their PhDs (see Moving up or moving out). In 2006, the European Commission (EC) reported that although 40% of PhD students in the natural sciences are female, only 11.3% of the professor, research director and other top positions are occupied by women1. In engineering and technology, 21.9% of PhD students are female, but this total dips to 5.8% at the highest levels of academia1.Furthermore, the average proportion of women on scientific boards is 24% (Norway and Finland, with 48% and 47%, respectively, stand in clear contrast to countries such as Italy and Poland, with 13% and 7%)1. And research funding also suggests a gender gap; in 17 of 26 European countries, men have higher success rates for securing funding1.Top of page

Off-balanceThe EU has been trying to address this imbalance. So far, its greatest success has been within its own organizations. The EC has almost reached its own target, set in 1999, of 40% for women on scientific boards and agencies2. According to Johannes Klumpers, head of unit for ‘science culture and gender issues’ at the EC’s directorate for research, the numbers have increased from around 10% in 1998 to about 34% in 2006.The Max Planck Institute’s Mary Osborn recommends institution-wide changes to help recruit and support women scientists.Europe-wide, the EU would like to increase the number of women in higher scientific ranks to 25%3. The EU first started to address the issue in 1999, when it set up an evaluation committee known as the ‘Helsinki Group’. The sociologists and natural scientists on the panel, all hailing from EU member countries, drafted reports on the situation in their countries. The group also appointed ‘statistical correspondents’, based at national universities or private institutes, in order to ensure European statistics were comparable across countries. The reports of the Helsinki Group and their correspondents serve as guidelines for the EU and individual countries.Mary Osborn, who is head of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in G�ttingen, Germany, and has chaired several panels on women in science thinks Europe would benefit from a programme similar to the US National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE initiative. This programme provides funds to selected higher-education institutions to support institution-wide changes designed to increase participation and advancement of female scientists and engineers. These range from alteration of recruitment practice (such as actively campaigning for women when advertising jobs) to easing everyday life for scientists with children � for example, by creating day care centres or nurseries integrated into institutions.Top of page
Making contactThe EU’s newest development is a central forum for exchange among women scientists across Europe, which had its first general assembly in April. The European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS) is an umbrella organization for national women’s networks and groups lobbying for women in science at EU level.”It is a unique exchange forum” says Flavia Zucco, head of research at the Institute of Neurobiology and Molecular Medicine in Rome and member of EPWS’s advisory board. EPWS meetings provide an opportunity to talk with national- and EU-level politicians, and to learn about the situation in other countries. “It is much easier to demand improvements such as flexible work shifts if you can point out that they are already standard in other European countries,” Zucco says.The National Contact Centre � Women in Science in Prague, an EPWS member, exemplifies how lobby work can function in practice. The EU-funded centre helps women whose position or work is suffering as a result of purported discrimination. Women can get advice on questions of labour law, and can also access legal and psychological help in more drastic cases of discrimination or sexual harassment.Neurobiologist Gaia Tavosanis received valuable career advice from a mentoring project for women in science.By networking across institutes and national borders, women hope to penetrate and overcome the ‘old-boys’ networks’; established institutional structures that often make it difficult for them to penetrate the higher ranks. Women need to form their own connections early in their careers, emphasizes Gaia Tavosanis, head of a junior research group at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich, Germany. She says that the mentoring women network FemmeNet, run by the Max Planck Minerva Foundation, has helped her to plan her career.A programme called ‘ProFil’ � run jointly by the Technical University, the Humboldt-University and the Free University of Berlin � goes further, aiming to help women who are preparing for professorships to advance. It offers professional training in skills such as mentoring, university administration, scientific presentation skills and grant writing. And at monthly dinners, ProFil attendees can make contact with politicians, industry representatives and journalists � helpful career-long contacts that could otherwise be difficult to establish.Caren Tischendorf, who was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Cologne in 2006, especially endorses the motivation she gained from the programme. “Knowing that other women are in the same situation as you is very helpful,” she says. “It strengthens your confidence that what you are trying to achieve is possible”. The programme has been a huge success: of the 42 participants since 2004, 21 have been appointed full professors, and six junior professors. On the basis of this success, the programme was prolonged this year.Progress towards equal opportunities for women has undoubtedly been made in recent decades, and particularly during the past few years. The challenge now is to make sure that initiatives to help women advance in scientific fields become the rule rather than the exception, whether through EU policies, institutional policies, or grassroots online efforts.


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