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SPEECH/09/249











Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Science and Research



Women and Science: 10 years of fixing the leaky pipe...





















Conference "Changing Research Landscapes to make the most of human potential – 10 years of EU activities in 'Women and Science' and beyond

Prague, 14 May 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning,

I don't often start a speech with a quiz...but why not? During the 1950s, a woman research scientist helped develop soft frozen ice cream. Later she became a famous politician. Any ideas?... I'll give you the answer at the end of the speech!

You might think this is a frivolous way to start. But I think it is relevant. Women have always contributed to science. Unfortunately their contribution has not always been known and fully recognised. This is why the Commission in 1999 adopted its very first Communication on the issue and started working intensively to change things. Let us look back at the last 10 years and see if our efforts have borne fruits.

Some sociologists consider the marked increase of women in paid work, and the accompanying decrease in the proportion of men, as one of the major societal changes in the 20th century. The shift in the type of jobs available – from manufacturing to service and knowledge based jobs – and the reduced demand for manual labour has boosted female employment and put the sexes on a more equal footing.

Unfortunately, these changes have not been uniform across all sectors of employment. Take our pet subject: science and technology; despite it being based on knowledge and creativity, and despite the fact that 60% of all European university graduates are women, this equality is slow in coming. If you find this hard to believe, look at the leaflet we prepared in advance of the publication of the "2009 She Figures" – it's in your conference material. It's a little like being a magician - take a look at the upper levels of the occupational ladder in science and technology: women disappear! Women science and technology graduates now count for only 19% of full professors in public research institutions. About 18% of the R&D workforce in the private sector is female, 29% in the public sector.

So where have all the women gone?

We have a name for it: the leaky pipeline.

So the question has to be: who's going to be the plumber? Perhaps dedicated scientific role models are the answer: perhaps extraordinary women like Rita Levi Montalcini – the Nobel Prize winner for medicine in 1986 and whom I had the pleasure and honor to meet some years ago. She has just celebrated her 100th birthday. It's important that people know about women like Rita, who have chosen such a passionate and difficult career and who, in what is considered a man's world, have contributed to our better understanding of the world. The Commission has dedicated a newly published book called 'Women in Science', which is being launched today, to all of those women.

The book contains the stories of women who have been part of the history of science and technology. They represent, however, only a small group from among thousands of unknown women scientists who have contributed to the progress of our society but whose role has often been ignored. This is a terrible oversight. These are the women who can be the role models for girls and young women who are thinking about a career in science and technology. And those young minds need that kind of direction because, unfortunately, the last Eurobarometer analysis[1] showed that only a minority of European young people are interested in science and technology studies.

It is essential then that we work to get more girls, and boys, into science and technology.

Why? Not only to get more researchers into our future workforce; but also so that we can get "scientifically informed" Europeans who will know the value of science. This is why among the sessions organised in the afternoon we have included a session on 'education: how to attract young people – girls but also boys - to science and technology'.

But we all must be aware that by the time they become teenagers, our children may have already made the choices that will exclude them from scientific careers. That means that any actions targeted at young people only may have no effect at all.

This means that if we want to be serious about attracting more people into scientific careers, we have to start at a very early stage with, for instance, enquiry-based education. I have said many times that curiosity, research and creativity are in our genes. But unfortunately they can die away when we grow up. This is because the way we raise and educate our kids does not always support innovative thinking and doing. We have to strike early to wake those dormant passions.

So we need to act early because this is where the pipeline starts to leak. The Commission wants to help where it needs to – in the Member States. Because it is the Member States who will need to do the heavy work – perhaps even the plumbing!

Too little interest by people, and especially young people in science, and too few women in science and technology. The Commission has raised awareness about this pan-European problem. Many projects have been funded, like the European Platform for Women scientists, in order to involve the scientific community in the discussion.

But the awareness raising effort needs to target those with influence in places we, the Commission, can't reach so easily, like teachers and parents, research managers and research funding agencies. These agencies were looked at in a report which is being distributed for the first time today and which is part of a systematic effort to map the European research funding landscape from a gender perspective. We wanted to check that nepotism and sexism are not behind the criteria for selection and research funding. The 32 European countries involved in the analysis vary widely in terms of national and organisational policies related to gender in research funding. And this variation is clearly linked to more general societal gender contexts rather than directly to the numbers of women in research. The report recommends how to improve transparency and the accountability of procedures used for selecting grants and fellowships awards and of access to research funding in general. One view is that the report may only give a partial and perhaps excessively positive picture of the national situations, as it focused on the major funding organisations in each country. However, these examples are reassuring and may serve as highly visible examples of good practice, which other funding organisations may seek to emulate. This is important.

Ten years ago, when the Commission started its activities in the field of women and science, there was very little political debate on the topic. The priority was to create a political forum, where the Member States' best (and less good!) practices could be identified and ideas shared. The result of this was the "Helsinki Group" which is still working today.

It has been a very useful "driver" and advisory body. But, as happens with all advisory bodies, it has been as effective as those nominated by the Member States to sit on it. This is a reality. Sometimes activities have inevitably slowed down, just as the political momentum for gender issues. Ten years on, we need to review and redefine the role of the Helsinki Group so that it can really support our aim of gender equality in science and technology.

Perhaps also we should look carefully to the results published in the Gender Equality Report on FP6. They show that the percentage of women in FP-related committees and panels (approximately 26% in 2006) is slightly lower than the overall percentage of women researchers recorded in Europe in 2006 (30%). The report explains this in the context of the 'glass ceiling effect' for female researchers. Taking the FP6 small research projects – the so called STREPs - as an example, we can see that while there are nearly 50% female PhD students involved in STREP actions, less than 20% of the scientists in charge were female. And, while the share of women in Monitoring Panels reaches 50% and is above 30% in Evaluation Panels, the number of female researchers registered in the Commission's Experts Dababase and in Advisory Groups is still not high enough. What we need is more effort, through the Commission and with the full support of the scientific community, to get more women researchers into FP7. This new effort, I suggest, might involve a new look at our targets for encouraging more women into science. I say 'our' targets, because I think we need to take a good hard look at this issue. And, if we are not being ambitious enough we need to propose new ones.

But of course we can't just pluck targets out of thin air. They have to be grounded and sensible. So another way in which we are going to fix this leaky pipe is by number crunching: we need proper data. And as an economist, this is music to my ears.

The Commission has been collecting data in all Member States and associated countries since 2000. The visible result of this are the 'She Figures' I have already mentioned. Having statistics and indicators is really essential to measure and understand the problem of the under-representation of women in science and technology. But progress in the harmonisation of the definitions used is also needed. Just to give you two examples: when we refer to "academics" or to the seniority grades indicating career progressions, do we all refer to the same thing? We need also to standardise definitions on participation in research decision-making bodies. It will help us measure the opportunities for female researchers to influence the research agenda. I must stress here that Member States– with the support of Eurostat – must provide this information, if the analysis is to be complete, clear and useful.

We have also analysed the legislative and social situation of women in science and technology in the Member States and beyond. This has been done more than once as data were collected and then updated, or enlarged to include what are still being called the "new Member States". The last report was published last year, and has given us a picture of 38 European countries. Much has been achieved since the first analysis done in 2002. All the countries now have equal treatment legislation; all except three[2] have a ministry with responsibility for women’s issues or a Statutory Gender Equality Agency. 26 countries have declared their commitment to gender mainstreaming, leaving only 12 with no mainstreaming plans.

Certainly, this is progress; but there a lot of gaps and, yes, still some leaks. In 2005, Member States adopted an ambitious and worthy target: that 25% of the leading public research positions should be filled by women. But unfortunately no deadline for reaching the target was set. Last autumn, I asked the Ministers of Research to update me on the progress made toward this target. I have received many replies, but not from everyone, and despite the declared progress, we are still far from our objective. This is disappointing....

One year ago "Mapping the Maze: getting more women to the top in research" was published. It stressed the urgency of the situation and called for commitment from research decision-makers to change the current status quo. Because transparent and fair evaluation and promotion procedures alone will not be enough to improve gender balance in research decision-making. Nothing less than a full cultural change is needed. I'm looking forward to hearing how the speakers at this conference – the people from the research institutions who have already grasped the nettle and started working on the issue - think it can be done. I would suggest that other research institutions make the best use of these examples for themselves.

The Commission has also used funded research to make a difference. This is a very sensitive issue, I know, but has thrown up a somewhat counter productive situation. Gender Action Plans were introduced in the Sixth Framework Programme, to monitor the existence of gender aspects in all EU funded research, from social science to nanotechnologies. I must admit that their implementation was not the smoothest: there were technical problems, low gender awareness among the scientific community and among Commission officials made it extremely difficult. In FP7 we have then put in place a different approach: instead of requesting Gender Action Plans at project level, we have put more emphasis on gender aspects when drafting the work programmes; we have organised gender training activities and established an FP7 group who will analyse the annual workprogrammes from a gendered perspective. It is definitively too early to assess the full impacts of this new approach. But I am convinced it was worth giving it a try.

There is some more positive success to report. The Commission, regularly assesses the internal implementation of our self-imposed target: to achieve at least a 40% representation of women in Marie Curie scholarships, advisory groups, assessment panels and monitoring panels. And this target first set in 1999 was subsequently expanded to include all groups, panels, and committees involved in the Framework Programme. This non-binding target has yielded very good results. For instance, the number of women on project evaluation panels rose from about 10% in the FP4 to 34% in the FP6.

We have looked at women in science in the public sector, but we have not overlooked their colleagues in the private sector. This has been possible thanks to the foresight of a number of large multinational companies, active in "gender and diversity management" and in improving working conditions for women engineers and scientists a long time before the public sector. This well-known 'Women in Science and Technology' or WIST Group, has been working with the Commission for 7 years. Good results have been obtained, and the latest are being distributed today, with your documentation. This makes the business case for measures implemented to reconcile professional and private life – an issue that is sadly often overlooked. Other speakers will be presenting more on it but it is clear that greater gender equality is a major element in increasing the appeal of scientific careers both in the public AND private sectors.

What is needed is an integrated approach, which takes into consideration elements such as the promotion of equal pay, working conditions, career opportunities and vocational training for women and men, as well as facilities for childcare and for those with responsibilities as carers for the elderly. These elements are also at the heart of the Commission Communication on a European Partnership for better scientific careers and more mobility.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have spoken a lot about the different elements of our policies on Women in Science, some good and some not so good. I hope that where there has been criticism it has been constructive and that where there have been things to celebrate, they have received sufficient praise.

I will finish with a call for a new impetus. I want this new impetus to be about improving our research ecosystem in response to growing concern about rising global competition for the most talented researchers. We need to engage the very institutions carrying out research in a shared commitment towards gender equality, and more widely to inclusiveness and diversity management.

As I have said, this new direction will also mean getting young people at a very early stage; trying to really understand what the situation is (so that we can truly understand and deal with that leaking pipe); collecting the data we need so that we can make a comprehensive analysis and better measure the trends - even though their complexity means they will not be changed overnight. The 1999 Decision has had a positive impact, good progress has been made in the last 10 years but we are not there yet. In fact we are far from being there.

Why ?

Because something even bigger is needed. Nothing less than a change of culture, the modernising of human resource management which will require time, patience, determination and coherence.

Women and female scientists do not need favours or special conditions. What they need, what you need, is a fair just and trustworthy environment and consistent policies.

I hope that by now, you will have been able to appreciate something of the work that has taken place over the last ten years, not just in the Commission, but also in the 'real' world outside Brussels: because women scientists are not something virtual, or imagined, but real powerful and innovative.

Aretha Franklin once sang about "Sisters doing it for themselves"...

Let's give them the positive help they need and let's get rid of the leaks! Let's do everything possible to make sure that the motto "Women in Science" becomes more than just "we men in Science".

And by the way, for those of you who remember the quiz from the beginning of my speech – the answer is Margaret Thatcher. She was indeed more famous as a politician but the iron lady helped develop soft frozen ice cream. What a lady!


[1] Published in November last year
[2] FYROM, Switzerland and Israel


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