Europe’s women in science still face multiple hurdles

When she was younger, Gloria Calleja-Rodríguez was unsure if a career in science was for her. “I remember I had some doubts when I was in high school,” she said. “Everyone said that [studying] technology is difficult. I remember talking to my parents – they were sure I could do it.” She went on to earn her PhD and work at CEMOSA, a large Spanish engineering firm.

Her story is just one example of the growing proportion of women in European science. The most recent European Commission survey from 2018 shows that now roughly one-third of researchers throughout Europe are women, up from 30% in 2006. However, this can vary from 53% of researchers being women in North Macedonia to just 26% in Czechia and the Netherlands (though the latter has drastically improved from 18% in 2006).

Common to all countries is an institutional bias in science careers. European Union statistics show that the proportion of men and women scientists remains roughly equal until PhD graduate level. After that, the gender ratio drastically diverges as more men get promoted, until, at the highest positions in European science, roughly 75% are men.

“The key challenge in the university sector is not necessarily that women are paid less than men who are doing the same roles,” says Dr Heather Smith, a water policy academic at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. “The challenge is around retention and promotion – that’s from a combination of women leaving the sector mid-career, or staying longer at mid-career levels.”

The EU is trying to fix this through its funding policies. Smith is participating in the ongoing Ultimate project on how to best recycle wastewater, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme which ran from 2014 to 2020. The programme was the first time that grant applicants had to explain how they would factor in gender equality into their research project when applying for grants.

New initiatives tackling gender equity

Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship research programme which followed on from Horizon 2020, requires all public bodies, research organisations and universities to have a gender equality plan to apply for funding. These plans usually include policies for work-life balance, finding and removing barriers to promotion, and training on gender equality.

This has encouraged universities and their national associations across the continent to develop their own gender equality plans for the deadline last year. Some universities have created gender equality boards to maintain their gender equality figures. Others have taken more drastic measures: Between 2019 and 2020, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands decided to only accept applications from women for the first six months of a hiring call.

These efforts complement the community initiatives that have been set up over the past 20 years to encourage women to enter science, such as Femmes et Sciences in France, NaTE in Hungary, and Gender A Vda in Czechia.

Tugce Aker, the product manager at the engineering firm Reengen, took part in one such non-profit initiative in her native Türkiye. “I mentored for a while and attended classes to introduce different applications in my field to university students,” she said. “I believe these organisations can help women gain a better understanding of their role in technical fields. They can see that there are no barriers to success, and anyone with the right skills can make it, regardless of gender.”

Old attitudes die hard

But still some old attitudes remain. “I think that a main challenge is that you can get the feeling that you need to prove yourself in meetings or calls because you are a (young) woman,” says Kimberly Wevers, a renewable resources researcher at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.

“If you can let that slide, it makes it a lot easier, because sometimes it’s just me putting unnecessary pressure on myself.

“We were discussing with co-workers of different ages and genders about a gender bias at work and if things are different as a woman,” says Wevers.

“I made a comment that I’m sometimes conscious about being a young woman, with sometimes only older men at the table. An older male colleague told me that it might be better if I dressed differently, ‘older or more professional’, which is still a strange comment to me. I’m not sure if he would have made the same comment to a male colleague.”

Other European researchers feel the same. “I think we are still mostly in this patriarchal world,” says Asiia Suerbaeva, a PhD student at the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology in Finland. She says that while she never experienced any pressure to take classes based on gender stereotypes, she nonetheless still feels some men may judge her performance based on her gender alone.

“Even though in the real world no-one told me anything about ‘being the girl’ in engineering, somewhere deep inside you have this inner critic who might tell you this, and I think other women may feel the same,” she said.

Barriers for women in science also exist outside the campus. Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic were shown to disproportionately affect women researchers, as they, rather than men, were expected to take on extra family care responsibilities. But it does not take a pandemic for women to take on this burden.

“Childcare in the UK is generally an expensive, dysfunctional mess, thanks to years of poor policies,” says Heather Smith.

“When childcare is unavailable or inaccessible, women are still predominantly expected to pick up the slack.”

Fintan Burke is a writer and editor at the European Science Communication Institute.

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