Toward an Equitable Europe

Female researchers in the United States lead an international movement to improve the status of women in science careers, according to scientists and sociologists in the United States and Europe. Recent reports on the pay and working conditions of female professors in four Massachusetts Institute of Technology departments—inspired by an earlier report in that institution's School of Science—show that women receive lower pay than do men in comparable positions and miss out on importan

May 13, 2002
Harvey Black
Female researchers in the United States lead an international movement to improve the status of women in science careers, according to scientists and sociologists in the United States and Europe. Recent reports on the pay and working conditions of female professors in four Massachusetts Institute of Technology departments—inspired by an earlier report in that institution's School of Science—show that women receive lower pay than do men in comparable positions and miss out on important department appointments and specialized teaching assignments that can advance their careers.1

News of both reports, which have prompted promotions and salary increases, has circulated among scientists in Europe. Now European female scientists want to document their status in their own institutions. "It's very common for people to look at this in a nonscientific way, even scientists," says Christine Wenneras, associate professor of clinical bacteriology at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Goteborg, Sweden.2 Department-by-department studies may shed light on the underlying problems that hold women back in the sciences, she says. "People have all sorts of explanations—that women choose strange areas of research or are less motivated. There are lots of myths and biases. It's hard to get through the message that this problem should be studied scientifically as any other problem."

A Private-Market Accounting

A European Commission (EC) analysis aims to define the role of women in private industry. Preliminary figures from the Women in Industrial Research (WIR) study, show that women hold only 13% of industrial scientific jobs in eight major European countries; US women held 16.9% of such positions in 1997 according to a 2000 EC report. Germany and Austria, where 10% and 9% of industrial scientists are women, report the lowest ratio of female-to-male scientists in industry. In France, preliminary results show 17% of scientific industrial jobs are filled with women—nearly twice as many as in Germany (www.europa.eu.int/comm/research/wir). The WIR Expert Group will release the report in the fall.
Courtesy of Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann

Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann

Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann says WIR would like to research further to find out why Germans and Austrians fare worse, but, she notes, popular magazines publish disapproving reports about women who balance work and family life. She also points to the German school system as another roadblock to woman seeking positions in industry. "Every [German] mother who is working needs to find her own solutions," says Rübsamen-Waigmann, head of anti-infectives research at Bayer, in Wuppertal, Germany. "There is no society-wide solution [for caring for children after school]. That is different for example from a country like France, where there is a full-day school system, where children do their homework, and it is easier for a woman to have a career."

Gertrud Nunner-Winkler, a sociologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, summarized the scientific literature about working women in a paper titled "Women torn between family and career."3 She writes: "The majority [of West Germans] believe that preschool children suffer from the mother working and that the child should not be entrusted to either private child minders or public nurseries."

Traditions Trap

Many Europeans worry that long-held prejudices and traditions slow the progress of women in the sciences. "In Europe there is by far not the same political awareness of what is correct and what is not correct in terms of discriminating [against] women in the workplace and giving women equal access to resources," says Viola Vogel, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington. Vogel was educated in Germany and did her postdoctoral work in the United States. "In the United States," she adds, "There is very good political awareness that there are some problems and that we should better deal with those problems and define new policies that help overcome them."

The United States is "ahead of other countries and certainly ahead of Europe in gender awareness," says Joan Mason, chair of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering. "The United States is ahead of us all the time. USA WIS [Women in Science] was founded in 1971, well ahead of comparable associations in other countries."

German women scientists who have done postdoctoral traineeships in the United States have "gained tremendously in self-confidence while they were over there," Rübsamen-Waigmann says. "Americans have an easier way to accept someone as good. They are probably more success-oriented than we are."

In Europe, women must counter a philosophy of simply waiting for things to get better. "There is this notion that is very popular that everything will be fine if we just wait, that progress is on its way," Wenneras says. "That's a fallacy." Things can get worse for women, she adds. At the University of Washington, Denice Denton, dean of the College of Engineering, says that even in the United States, female faculty and students report inequities. "Hardly a day goes by in my office that diversity doesn't come up. It's on the table," she says.

The WIR study focuses on six areas: young scientists, good practices, entrepreneurs and patents, EC programs, networking between top women, and changing the public image. By the end of the year, the group hopes to define why Europeans lag behind their US peers and propose some solutions. "You really need to convince the people that have the power to change things, that there is a problem, that there is a waste," Wenneras says. "When you have limited resources you should really give them to the best candidates. It's not good for progress and development when you have nonscientific criteria [used to distribute resources]."

Harvey Black (hblack@chorus.net)is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.

References
1. L. Baylin, et al, "2002 Reports on the Committees of the Status of Women Faculty," Cambridge, Mass. 2002. web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/provost.html

2. C. Wenneras, A. Wold, "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review," Nature, 387:341-3, 1997.

3. G. Nunner-Winkler, "Women torn between family and career," Max Planck Research, 2:67-9. 2001.