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It’s lonely at the top | Women in research

By Anna Behrend and Inka Reichert

The lecture theatre is packed; students are scribbling cryptic formulae on graph paper, heads full to bursting; at breakneck speed, the grey-haired professor fills the board with even more mathematical calculations: a typical university science lecture. Why is it actually so typical that the lecturer at the front is nearly always a man, and the women are all sitting in the audience?

Amongst undergraduates there’s a balance

Across the European Union (EU), almost equal numbers of men and women embark on a university education. But with every successive stage in their academic careers, the percentage of women drops. We have known about the problem for many years, and since the 1990s, ever more studies have been carried out and reports published. Under the heading “Mapping the Maze – Getting more Women to the Top in Research”, the EU published a study in 2008 which reveals that women only seldom achieve top positions in science, even now. The EU Commission’s “She Figures 2006” had already come to the same conclusion. The figures also show that there are not only fewer women in science than men, but that, on average, they also earn less than their male colleagues. In Germany, women in business earn an average of 22 percent less than their male counterparts in comparable positions. The EU average difference is 15 percent.

About 55,000 additional women researchers

Despite these inequalities, current surveys have a positive message, too: very gradually, the number of women in research is increasing, according to the authors of “She Figures 2006”. The number of women academics went up from 27 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2003. Of the 140,000 new academics in this period, almost 55,000 were women. By comparison with former percentages, the growth rate for women (4 percent) was higher than that for men (82 percent). However, this positive trend has to be treated with care because, depending on the size of the previous percentage, the growth rate bears little weight. Or to put it another way: If there were only one female academic in the whole of Germany, and next year a second one came along, the growth rate would be 100 percent

One woman at the top

"Good News" – thus the heading above the name Marja Makarow in the EU report about women academics in leading positions “Mapping the Maze”. Marja Makarow is the first woman to head the European Science Foundation (ESF), an organisation established in 1974 to promote and network research in Europe. During the interview Makarow, otherwise professor for applied biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Helsinki, explains that even she sometimes has to conform to a man’s world.

Video by Anna Behrend and Inka Reichert (3:06 mins, 31,8 MB)

Interesting links on the topic

"She Figures 2006":
Study by the European Union on the employment situation of women in academic professions – with lots of statistics and charts.  Click here

"Mapping the Maze":
Study by the European Union on appointment procedures, funding allocation and the obstacles women have to overcome in their academic careers. In addition to charts and statistics there are also analytical texts and country-specific examples.  Click here

Centre of excellence for women in science:
Up-to-date information on studies, projects and changes in the law relating to the theme of equality in research.  Click here

This article originated at the 2008 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF).

Special edition of "Research*eu"

"Women and Science: The march towards equality": this is the title of a special edition of the magazine of the European research area published by the European Commission in spring 2009.  Click here for the complete magazine in English.

Just asking: what researchers think about women in research

Are exclusively male research groups more successful? Why do men have better career opportunities in science? And how high is the percentage of female professors in The Netherlands? During ESOF 2008, academics answered these and other questions –  here are the clips.

Setting a good example

Given the inequalities described, it is obvious to ask what the reasons are for the differences and how they can be overcome. The "Mapping the Maze" study contains suggestions. One of the problems, for example, is that gender discrimination in science is often ignored or denied.  Here is an overview of how various European counties try to improve equal opportunities.

Facts about women

How much less does the average female physicist in Europe earn by comparison with male colleagues? And what about the glass ceiling index? Tables and charts on the topic "Women in research" can be found  here.

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