Breaking the glass ceiling for women and girls in science

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Claudine Hermann
Claudine Hermann

Science needs to become accessible for everyone

Claudine Hermann is Vice-President of the European Platform of Women Scientists and Honorary President of Femmes & Sciences

Excellent science and innovation require the talents of both women and men. But there are still too few female scientists occupying top positions in scientific decision-making.

According to She Figures 2015, a compilation of gender-disaggregated science statistics published by the European Commission, “men are more than two times as likely to choose engineering, manufacturing and construction” at degree level. The figures also lead the Commission to argue that “despite progress, the under‑representation of women continues to be a problem in all narrow fields of science and engineering, except life science”, with the case of computing also being problematic.

But efforts are under way to buck this trend.

Since 1998 the Commission has supported many actions through reports and project funding. The European Parliament has produced several recommendations similar to the one passed on 9 September 2015 on ‘women’s careers in science and universities, and glass ceilings encountered’. These actions have led to increased awareness across Europe, but much remains to be done.

To compete globally, Europe must step up its game in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

The aim of European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS), an international non-profit organisation for female scientists in Europe and beyond, is to represent the interests of 12,000 women scientists at all stages of their careers, and to engage in discussions with national, European and international institutions.

To compete globally, Europe must step up its game in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Special action is needed to target teenagers before they choose their higher education discipline. The place of women in science is directly related to girls choosing to study these disciplines.

So the EPWS and its members are taking action. Several EPWS member associations in Europe are running original initiatives for young people, and especially for girls. Women scientists address both girls and boys in classes, but their testimonies hit home with girls, for whom the scientists can become role models.

In Portugal, Amonet members are introducing the experimental study of science and technology in pre-schools and primary education and even in the family. In the United Kingdom, the Women in Physics Group of the Institute of Physics has launched Physicists in Primary Schools, an initiative to interest children in physics, with demonstrations and hands-on activities. In France, the associations Femmes & Sciences, femmes et mathématiques and Femmes Ingénieurs are jointly acting as role models in classes.

But how can we improve the situation of women scientists overall?

First, women need to be given a voice in the EU research policy. To achieve this EPWS organises conferences and debates. Several EPWS members have been and are participants in or coordinators of EU gender-related projects, and the EPWS encourages its members to shape the EU research agenda.

The world of science needs to become accessible for everyone – women and girls included

Second, sex and gender analysis in research needs to be highlighted. There are recommendations at national and European levels but these might have not led to action. This integration of gender dimension in science and research requires dialogue between gender studies and science decision-makers, creating a link between knowledge and action.

Third, networking is crucial. The EPWS offers its member networks and individual members a channel for successful communication.

Last, information-sharing and public relations play important roles. By being aware of good practices concerning women scientists in other EU countries, EPWS members can make suggestions to decision-makers in their home countries.

Through numerous practical actions and initiatives, the EPWS and its members are working for the improvement of the situation of women and girls in science. Initiatives such as the European Science Week and the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science – observed annually on 11 February – are warmly welcomed.

Promoting gender equality, the understanding and integration of the gender dimension in science and research is essential so that the world of science becomes accessible for everyone – women and girls included.

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