European research institutes move to address gender inequality
Approximately half of the PhD students in Europe are women. However, the levels of women researchers decrease at the postdoctoral level and drop dramatically in leadership positions. These numbers demonstrate a dramatic waste of talent and resources in education, research and the labour market.
Thirteen life science research institutes in Europe, joined by partnership in the EU-LIFE alliance, are to beat the current unbalanced situation regarding men and women in science. Supported by a gender expert organisation they will undertake the LIBRA project, aimed to evaluate the current status of gender equality in the different institutes and implement innovative actions to increase representation and participation of women in leadership positions in life sciences in Europe as well as raising science excellence by including sex and gender dimension in their research.
Science is the main engine for advancement of knowledge and a key actor for the European economy and the development of its society. An objective appraisal of the data on women in science clearly indicates that although overt discrimination is now virtually absent in Europe, women have less chances to reach leadership positions. Reasons are often hidden in remaining discriminating structures such as language, symbolic dimensions, automatic behavioural patterns and deep-rooted widespread beliefs. While these structures do not necessarily contribute to direct, active discriminatory processes, they definitely create a bias that facilitates discriminatory conditions for women.
Even in disciplines in which women are more numerous, as the life sciences (with ~56% female PhD holders at the EU-27 level), women’s strong presence among students and researchers does not translate into their proportionate access to senior and high-level decision-making positions. Only 20% of full professors in Europe are women as reported by She Figures 2012 for EU-27. “It’s time to get to work. We all know statistics related to this topic and now it’s time for action,” states Isabelle Vernos, ICREA research professor, senior group leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona and coordinator of the LIBRA project. “Thanks to the LIBRA project we will be able to evaluate our own institutions and to start a collaborative process that will lead to concrete actions and policies not only for the participating research institutions but also for the whole scientific community” explains Vernos, who is also chairing the gender balance working group at the European Research Council (ERC).
The wide European representation of LIBRA will allow the project to benefit from several national initiatives on gender. An example is the UK Athena SWAN Charter initiative, which is committed to advance women's careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) in higher education and research. “Leading the Athena SWAN application and receiving the Silver Athena SWAN Award at the Babraham Institute has been a wonderful experience. As a result of this application, we have not only an ambitious action plan to promote women’s careers in science but also a new culture and awareness of gender balance and its benefits for all,” explains Dr Anne Corcoran, group leader at the Babraham Institute. “Our recent experience will definitively contribute to the success of LIBRA,” she states.
Professor Michael Wakelam, Institute Director, said: “As a recent recipient of a silver Athena SWAN award, we have reassessed our own policies and embraced new actions to ensure gender equality at the Institute. We look forward to the opportunities provided by LIBRA to contribute to establishing good practice with our EU-LIFE partners, producing a real picture of the barriers to women’s success in research and introducing measures to improve gender balance within Europe.”
LIBRA’s approach includes monitoring and assessing initiatives by a gender expert organisation, ASDO, the Assembly of Women for Development and the Struggle against Social Exclusion. Giovanna Declich, sociologist and ASDO executive director declares “It’s really an inspiring novelty that research institutions themselves lead a project like LIBRA. We have been professionally engaged in research on gender issues for more than 20 years and it is exciting for us to put our knowledge at the service of such a committed and enthusiastic group. It’s time to address gender inequality, resulting from a complex and multifold process, through an integrated approach, as LIBRA intends to do, so to launch structural and enduring transformations to make research institutions gender-equal and gender-aware”.
The LIBRA project will run until March 2019. In addition to preparing gender equality plans, the project focuses on four key areas: recruitment, career development, work-life balance and gender representation in pre-clinical studies.
The participating institutes are:
- Babraham Institute, UK
- Center for Genomic Regulation, Spain (project coordinator)
- Institut Curie, France
- Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Germany
- Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
- European Institute of Oncology, Italy
- Central European Institute of Technology, Czech Republic
- Netherlands Cancer Institute, Netherlands
- Biotech Research and Innovation Centre, Denmark
- Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Switzerland
- the Assembly of Women for Development and the Struggle against Social Exclusion (Assemblea delle Donne per lo Sviluppo e la Lotta all’Esclusione Sociale), Italy
- Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, Finland
- VIB, Belgium
- Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Portugal
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 665937.