MEP: Gender stereotypes holding back women scientists

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Europe should not shy away from positive discrimination as a means of promoting female scientists as it will help tackle skills shortages in scientific disciplines, argues the author of a Parliament report on women in science in an interview with EURACTIV.

Britta Thomsen is a Danish Socialist MEP and a member of Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.   

Why did you decide to draft this report?

Because I believe that it is an essential topic when we discuss the future of Europe. The promotion of research and innovation is essential for European competitiveness and fulfilment of the Lisbon goals. Europe needs to recruit 700,000 additional researchers as part of the Lisbon Strategy, but if we don’t succeed in reaching out to the great female potential of students then it will be impossible to recruit enough. 

To me it is an alarming fact for example that only 18% of researchers working in the private sector are women. How is this possible in an EU where more than 50% of the graduates are female? So I think what is essential about this topic is that it is not just about a feminist quest for equality, it is fundamentally about European growth, innovation and competitiveness in the future. 

What was also one of the main drivers behind my report is the fact that things don’t seem to be changing naturally. When I took my history degree at University of Aarhus in the 1970s there was just one female associate professor in the Department of History. Now 30 years later this is still the case! So we cannot just sit back and wait for the world to get better, because there are obviously some recruitment procedures and prevailing stereotypes that prevent women from succeeding with a scientific career.

Report sets out a number of recommendations, one of which is “intensification of activities to promote female scientific careers”. What activities should be intensified and how?

I think there are two sides to this promotion. One is to encourage interest in science and a scientific career from a young age and incorporate this into the education system. The other is to increase special funding for female scientists and improve mentoring schemes and the use of role models to clearly show that it is in fact possible for a woman to pursue a scientific career.

Another recommendation is to implement gender mainstreaming in the EU and national programmes. What programmes do you refer to and how the gender mainstreaming should be implemented?

I think all universities and research institutions need to realise that it is in their own best interest to develop gender strategies if they want to attract both female students and female employees. So my goal is that all institutions would develop gender strategies and set targets for what degree of female representation they would like to achieve. I think increased awareness to the problem is a fundamental precondition for changing the situation as it is today.

Should positive discrimination be implemented to promote female scientific careers?

Yes, I think that we should not shy away from positive discrimination. It shouldn’t be an end in itself, but it is necessary to take measures that counteract the current systems and traditions, because these obviously in some way “positively discriminate” men. I think this could include for example special funding for women or special bonuses to institutions that manage to recruit a high number of women.

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