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."
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|Courtesy of 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."
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]."
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.