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European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Speech at the Business and Professional Women’s Club
Galway, 16 May 2014
Thank you so much for inviting me to talk to you today. I am delighted to be among so many familiar faces and so many dynamic women.
First and foremost, I would like to offer you my sincere congratulations on being selected to host the BPW European Congress in 2019.
This is very exciting for you and for Galway as a whole. It's a chance for you and for Galway to shine. BPW Galway has a proud history. Founded in 1986, it has been an active and constructive group, creating networking and advocacy opportunities for its members and providing excellent role models for young women starting out in business or professional life. As role models, each one of you in the room today can be an incredibly important stimulus to improving the career prospects of women and girls across Ireland.
Over the next five years, as you prepare for the European Congress, I have no doubt that the connections you will make with women across Europe will be extremely enriching, both personally and professionally.
There is already a vibrant community of women leaders and entrepreneurs in Europe, and Galway BPW is an active part of that. I know that every year you hold a candle lighting ceremony to remember that each BPW Club is not alone, but part of a wider international organisation founded by women for women.
Many of the issues that you might recognise from your own lives - such as working in male-dominated sectors, the glass ceiling, balancing work and private life - are faced by women across the continent both in business and in the area I am directly responsible for: research and innovation.
When you think of a famous woman scientist, probably the first name on your lips would be Marie Skłodowska-Curie. But it's only since 2011 that the EU programme to improve researchers' careers bears her own name - not just her husband's!
This is just one small, but telling example of how women have been marginalised in the fields of science and research.
Many examples of women scientists who were uncredited for their work are now coming to light. 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 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.
But let’s talk about the present day.
While women represent 46% of PhD holders in the EU, only one in three researchers is female. Similar figures apply to Ireland unfortunately. Only 20% of top-level academics are female, and of every universities in the EU, only one is headed by a woman.
40% of researchers in the higher education and public sectors are women, but they represent only 19% of researchers in the business sector across the EU. The picture is slightly better in Ireland, though, where one in four researchers in the private sector is female.
Europe needs more women at the highest level in business and politics, but it’s clear that the same goes for research and innovation.
Like the other European Commissioners, my appointment was ratified by the European Parliament.
Four and a half years ago, as I prepared myself for my 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.
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.
So in the course of that hearing in the Parliament, I committed to taking meaningful actions to improve the situation as European Commissioner. Since then, I have been keen to highlight the work of successful women scientists and innovators at every opportunity.
So in 2011, I established the EU Prizes for Women Innovators, to celebrate outstanding women entrepreneurs in recognition of their research–driven innovations that have benefited from EU funding.
This year, prizes went to three amazing entrepreneurs working in the fields of biotechnology, health, space and neurosciences.
I hope that their achievements will inspire many other female students, researchers, innovators and business people so that, at some point in the not so distant future, we won't need specific prizes for women because the opportunities, rewards and recognition will be gender-blind.
Excellent research and cutting–edge innovation rely on bright ideas, hard work and perseverance.
But they also need funding, and I have been determined to ensure that female researchers and innovators can access European funding on an equal footing to their male counterparts.
I have strongly reinforced gender equality in Horizon 2020, the EU’s new funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of more than 80 billion euro over seven years.
With Horizon 2020, I was determined to push gender from the margins to the centre, so that more women apply for 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.
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 the measures we are implementing will have a wider ripple effect in the organisations and companies that are taking part, and that they could influence other areas, including business and politics
Gender issues are articulated loud and clear throughout the research cycle - from expert advice to the Commission on the design of the programmes, to evaluation of the proposals and the gender balance of the research teams that win funding.
How are we ensuring women’s voices are heard in the design stage of the programmes?
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.
But Horizon 2020 aims higher, with a 50% target for its advisory groups and at least one expert with gender expertise, so we don't miss the gender dimension of the issues discussed.
Horizon 2020 also provides a clear incentive to applicants to ensure 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.
Again, this is not just symbolic. In fact, 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.
Once funding is awarded, beneficiaries must commit to promoting equal opportunities in the implementation of the action, and aim for gender balance in the staff working on the project. This ‘best efforts obligation’ is a legal provision in the funding agreement and will be monitored through the lifespan of the project.
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.
If we want to remove barriers that hinder women’s careers, universities and research organisations need to make institutional changes and modernise their practices and organisational culture.
In this respect, Ireland, and in particular the Irish Research Council is taking the right steps, which I warmly welcome. From now on, full consideration of the gender dimension in the research content is a requirement for all Irish Research Council awards.
All applicants to the Council’s schemes are required to declare that the gender dimension has been taken into account, and describe the implications for the research proposal.
In addition the Irish Council also encourages and implements initiatives to promote equality between women and men at all stages of the researcher’s career.
The peculiarities and complexities of the research sector demand a tailored response to achieve gender equality.
But this should be seen in the context of the EU’s long-established regulatory framework on gender equality in the labour market as a whole, which includes binding Directives.
I’m sure that everyone here would agree that work to improve gender equality has to start at the earliest age. Science is no exception. In 2012, I launched the “Science: it’s a girl thing!” campaign to boost the interest of young girls for science.
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.
To strengthen our message, the campaign is now also addressing science teachers, encouraging them to be more gender aware in how they teach.
The campaign isn’t the only one for young people. For instance, the annual European Union Young Scientist Contest, which has been taking place since 1989, showcases the best of European students’ scientific achievements.
Irish students have an excellent record. Last year’s competition was won by three 15 year-old girls from Kinsale Community School in Cork, with their project to improve plant germination.
I was delighted to bring the girls to Brussels in March to present their work to the plenary of the European Innovation Convention. Their articulacy and dedication to research and innovation belied their age.
In my time as European Commissioner I have been very privileged to meet many women like you from across the world – women who have forged remarkable careers in business, research and innovation.
Women, who despite obstacles faced in their own careers, have still found the time and energy to encourage others along the way.
They, and you, are helping ensure that women's potential and women's contributions will be important engines driving our economy and improving society, today and in the future.
I wish you every success in your work, both individually and as the Business and Professional Women’s Club, and I look forward to receiving my invitation to the European Congress in 2019!