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European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Women and Science – from the margins to the centre
Speech to Joint Event on Women Researchers and presentation of the Atomia prize
Brussels, 12 March 2014
Minister Frémault, ladies and gentlemen,
Today, you are awarding the Atomia prize to two very deserving recipients.
Just a couple of days ago, I was delighted to award the EU Prizes for Women Innovators to three outstanding women who have successfully leapt the gap between science and business.
I hope that their achievements will inspire many other female students, researchers, and innovators so that, at some point in the not so distant future, we won't need a specific prize for women scientists and innovators because the opportunities, rewards and recognition will be gender neutral.
Excellence springs from many sources, but too often women scientists and innovators have had to work that little bit harder to move from the shadows to the spotlight – from the margins to the centre.
When you think of a woman scientist, probably the first and only name on most people's lips would be Marie Skłodowska-Curie. But it's only since 2011 that the EU programme bears her own name - not just her husband's.
This is just one small example of how women have been marginalised in science and research.
Of course, women researchers and scientists are a diverse bunch, just as heterogeneous as their male colleagues, and their challenges and rewards are complex and multi-faceted.
But as a body, speaking generally, they face poorer pay, slower career progression, and more obstacles to conducting rewarding research than their male colleagues.
And they also face perception problems. One perception is that science and research are, principally, a male pursuit – an attitude that can sometimes be traced right back to the classroom.
Another unconscious bias has been that female scientists are somehow not quite up to scratch. They are so underrepresented on Wikipedia that last week, in honour of International Women's Day, the Royal Society in the UK organised a mass edit of Wikipedia's pages to give women scientists, past and present, the same kind of profile that the men enjoy.
Another perception is that a female scientist only plays a supporting role in a mixed research team. Countless examples are now coming to light of women scientists who were uncredited for their work. Like Rosalind Franklin, the British biophysicist whose contribution to Crick and Watson's Nobel-winning work on DNA has only recently received the full recognition it deserves.
Or the Austrian Lise Meitner, who was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission, but whose work was published by her male colleague without a co-credit, a victim in the 1930s of both her Jewishness and her gender.
Or the Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose discovery, as a postgraduate student, of radio pulsars resulted in a Nobel Prize. There was some controversy at the time that her male superiors picked up the award.
Professor Bell Burnell has since had an illustrious career and she is still working hard to boost the numbers and role of women in research. She is a generous mentor and inspiring role model for many.
Women have been marginalised in research and innovation for too long and as a female European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, I have been determined to do whatever I could to bring them to the centre.
Like the other European Commissioners, my appointment was ratified by the European Parliament.
As I prepared myself for the hearing with the Parliament by taking advice from experts and reading into the issue, I became more and more convinced that in the area of research and innovation, gender equality is not simply a question of fairness.
Nor is it simply a question of what's right.
It's a question of ensuring that no talent, no ideas, no efforts are wasted simply because they come from a woman rather than a man. The challenges facing our economy and society mean that we cannot miss out on women's ideas.
In my hearing before the Parliament in January 2010 I spoke of my passion for equal opportunities for women and men. I pledged that the Commission would lead by example in promoting gender equality in research and innovation. I promised to do this in three ways:
- By ensuring that we reach the 40% target for the under-represented sex in expert groups and evaluation panels;
- By pushing for modernisation in the management of research institutions to take better account of women's needs in the workplace, and
- By raising awareness and launching a campaign to get more girls interested in science.
These three pledges have guided the Commission's efforts over the last four years. I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to talk about how we have done.
Let's be realistic. Gender issues were not given the attention they deserved under the previous EU Framework Programmes for Research.
Taking just the issue of participation, most FP7 programmes encouraged a balance between women and men in funded projects. However, this encouragement was generalised, insufficiently monitored and not followed through. Regrettably, it did not bring positive results. Only 21% of the people participating as scientific contact points in projects were women, less than the already low percentage of female researchers in Europe, 33%.
Integrating the gender dimension in research content was optional under FP7, which led to poor results on this front too. In the FP7 Cooperation programme, only 18% of completed projects integrated the gender dimension into their research.
With Horizon 2020, I was determined to push gender from the margins to the centre, so that more women apply and participate in successful projects.
The improvements we have made aren't just cosmetic changes aimed at "gender-washing" or making Horizon 2020 more politically correct.
The obligation to ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation content is written into the founding rules of Horizon 2020, under Article 16 of the Regulation.
There's a lot of money at stake in Horizon 2020 and the new rules ensure that women are at the centre of the decisions on how it should be spent and at the heart of the research and innovation that is funded.
As one of the world's biggest public research programmes, Horizon 2020 has some clout and I hope that its approach will be very influential.
We know that Europe's top universities rely on its financing, and it's our goal to get many more companies participating in the programme. So the steps we are taking will have a very real effect on the women and men who participate in the projects. I hope, too, that our actions will have a wider ripple effect in the organisations and companies that are taking part.
Gender priorities are articulated loud and clear throughout the research cycle - from advice on the design of the programmes and content of calls, to evaluation of proposals and the gender balance of the research teams that win funding.
Let me say a few words about my first pledge on the 40% target. Across the European Commission, the general goal is for the under-represented sex to make up 40% of the members of expert groups and advisory panels. Regrettably, FP7 only reached that target in 6 of the 20 Advisory Groups that give expert assistance in preparing the content of programmes and calls for proposals.
However, now we're going to do better. I am determined to surpass our original goal. Horizon 2020 sets a higher standard of 50% for the Advisory Groups. In addition, each Advisory Group must include at least one expert with gender expertise, helping to ensure that we don't miss the gender dimension of the issues discussed.
Horizon 2020 also provides a clear incentive to applicants to ensure a better gender balance in their research teams. If two proposals receive exactly the same scores on all other evaluation criteria, the gender balance will be one of the factors in deciding which proposal is ranked higher.
I've heard some claims that this could jeopardise Horizon 2020's standards of excellence, but this won't be the case because the proposal will already have received identical scores. What's more, a better gender balance can mean better research. The evidence suggests that mixed research teams perform better than male-dominated or female-dominated teams.
Horizon 2020 also promotes the gender dimension in research and innovation content to ensure that it takes into account the needs, behaviours and attitudes of both women and men. This is the way to excellence, jobs and growth.
Let me give you some concrete examples. Transport research shows that women and men have different needs and habits when using public transport. The sexes present differing clinical symptoms for heart disease and osteoporosis. Assessing food safety or the impact of environmental chemicals means taking into account the metabolic systems of both women and men at different stages in their lives.
In Horizon 2020, the gender dimension is explicitly integrated from the outset in many of the specific programmes – in more than 100 topics so far out of 610 in total, spread across 13 different programmes. This gives us a promising idea of the number of projects that will develop a gender dimension and of the new knowledge that they will produce.
Topics with an explicit gender dimension have been “flagged” so they can be quickly found on Horizon 2020's Participant Portal.
The new Horizon 2020 application forms also request information from applicants on how sex or gender analysis is taken into account in the project’s content.
The gender dimension therefore becomes an integral part of the proposal, to be evaluated alongside with other issues under the first evaluation criterion on excellence.
Once funding is awarded, beneficiaries must commit to promoting equal opportunities in the implementation of the action. Beneficiaries must also aim, as far as possible, for gender balance at all levels of personnel working on the project, including at supervisory and managerial level.
This ‘best efforts obligation’ is a legal provision in the funding grant agreement and will be monitored through the lifespan of the project, along with other commitments made by the beneficiaries.
Reporting and monitoring on the integration of the gender dimension is greatly improved in Horizon 2020. The gender dimension will be one aspect of beneficiaries' general reports, while the Commission will use a specific performance indicator to collect and analyse data from 2016.
With Horizon 2020's new approach, the European Commission is going further than many Member States and I am happy to say that we are also pioneers on the international scene.
Of course, how we design funding programmes, how we award funding and the kind of research and innovation that is financed are all crucial to promoting gender equality. But it's not the whole story.
There are structural issues that need to be tackled in the Member States' research systems. This is something that we can and must do together, as a key part of the European Research Area – our drive to make Europe the best place in the world to be a scientist.
This brings me to my second pledge: modernising the management of research institutions in the context of the European Research Area.
We still have too few female researchers despite the rise in the number of female PhD holders. Women represent 46% of PhD graduates in the EU, but only 33% of our researchers.
The gender imbalance is even more striking in top positions, where only 20% of senior academic staff are women, 15% are Heads of institutions and 10% are Rectors in the Higher Education Sector.
It's rare to find gender issues on university curricula addressed outside of the life sciences, social sciences and humanities.
The EU has a well-established regulatory framework on gender equality, including binding Directives, which applies to the whole labour market.
But the peculiarities and complexities of the research sector demand a tailored response to achieve gender equality in research.
Issues such as gender bias in evaluating scientific performance; returning to the lab after a career break, or the pressures on dual career couples are intrinsic to the functioning of the research system. They cannot be tackled with simple awareness-raising campaigns or ad hoc initiatives.
We have to break down the cultural and institutional barriers behind gender discrimination. We need to adapt the very practices of the organisations that employ both women and men: we must promote “institutional change”.
The fact that gender equality is one of the five key policy priorities of the European Research Area has provided us with the opportunity and the leverage to target institutional change. Four kinds of actors are involved: the Member States, funding agencies, research organisations and their networks, and finally, the professional associations.
First of all, we are encouraging Member States to create the appropriate legal and policy environment to incentivise institutional changes. This should aim to correct gender imbalances in careers and in decision making, and to strengthen the gender dimension in research programmes.
The first ERA Progress report published last September revealed great disparities between the Member States. Half of them have launched specific incentives to support women's research careers.
Only five of them have created specific legislation for gender equality in research and only four require research performing organisations to produce gender action plans. Sadly, very little attention is given by Member States to the integration of the gender dimension in national research programmes.
This is simply not good enough. The ERA Progress Report urged Member States to implement comprehensive strategies to promote institutional change.
If we're serious about change, of giving women the chance they deserve, we need to mobilise across Europe.
It means, for example, sharing good practice that has developed locally or nationally and rolling it out to other countries and institutions. It also means that we have to establish indicators so we can track progress.
But I know Member States can’t achieve gender equality in research by themselves. Funding agencies, research organisations and universities play essential roles because they are at the front line in carrying out institutional change.
Gender equality in research will not be achieved unless a critical mass of universities and research institutions are encouraged and supported to make long-term institutional changes.
I know that some people were disappointed that the Commission has not made a Recommendation to Member States on institutional changes to promote gender equality. However, I think it is important to see the issue in the context of our overall approach on the European Research Area.
Gender will be a centrepiece of the upcoming 2014 Progress report that will thoroughly analyse the implementation of ERA at national and European level. But the report will not just look back at what has been achieved, it will also look forward to the work that needs to be done and make recommendations to Member States on structural changes in universities and research institutions.
The Commission is already intervening on this issue in a very practical way by funding a new ERA-Net on gender that brings together national ministries, research programme owners and managers from 11 countries in Europe and beyond.
The European Commission is in it for the long haul – we are committed to a European Research Area that gives women researchers and innovators the same chances as men.
We won't do this overnight. We need to change policies, funding, careers and institutions. And all this will be easier in the long term if we also change attitudes. In my book, it's easier and better to tackle prejudice early. So let me say a few words about the 'Science, it’s a girl thing!' campaign.
Getting girls and boys interested in science has to start at an early age. Part of the job is to change attitudes, including among girls who might think that science is not for them. That is why in 2010 I made my third pledge to the European Parliament, to launch a campaign to encourage young girls to discover science and make a first step on the path to a scientific career.
The somewhat difficult start to the campaign showed that the Commission itself still had much to learn; but ironically the attention grabbed by the launch directed people to the real substance of this initiative, which challenges stereotypes, encourages girls and brilliantly showcases the work of women scientists.
The campaign brings together the young and old: inspirational female role models can exchange with girls on a shared passion and on the possibility of a science career. The campaign has huge reach, with more than 63,000 fans on its Facebook page.
It is important that gender equality is perceived as a priority for educators as well, so in 2013 the campaign also began targeting science teachers across Europe, through a partnership with Scientix, the EU-funded web portal for science teachers.
Minister Frémault, ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured that you have given me the opportunity to talk in some detail today about issues that are very close to my heart.
I hope that I have convinced you that in my time as Commissioner I have not just remained a firm advocate of this cause, but I have taken the actions that will enable my successors to paint, in the future, a much more positive picture of the position of women in research and innovation.
My aim has been to push this issue from the margins to the centre. To the centre of the European Research Area. To the centre of policy making in the Member States. To the centre of how our universities are run.
I have played my part. But that was one part amongst many.
I, and my colleagues in the European Commission, are indebted to the many experts, including the members of the Helsinki Group, who have helped us develop new policies, especially the much-needed reforms contained in Horizon 2020.
And in my four years as European Commissioner I have been privileged to meet many women from across the world who have forged remarkable careers in research, innovation and science.
Women, who despite any obstacles faced in their own careers, have still found the time and energy to encourage others along the way.
They, and you, dear colleagues, are helping ensure that women's potential and women's contributions will come out of the shadows and take their place at the centre of European science - yesterday, today and tomorrow.