Shortage of top women scientists causes concern

The lack of women occupying senior positions in the science world has come under scrutiny at an international workshop in Bern.

This content was published on August 8, 2002 - 14:11

Despite measures taken by universities and research funding agencies, few women ever reach the level of full professor or director. In Switzerland, for example, only eight per cent of full professors are women.

The gender gap is particularly striking in areas of research in which women make up the majority of undergraduates and are still adequately represented at the lower and intermediate levels.

In most western European countries and the United States, the number of men and women doing undergraduate degrees is roughly similar.

Gender gap widening

However, at each successive stage of the academic ladder - graduate students, post-doctorate, junior and senior faculty positions - the gap gets wider and wider.

"It varies enormously according to subject," Heidi Diggelmann, president of the Swiss National Science Foundation's research council, told swissinfo.

"Maybe the most dramatic discrepancy is in clinical medicine. More than half those doing medical studies are women, but there are very, very few directors of clinical service."

In an effort to address the issue, the heads of research funding agencies from 20 countries attended a workshop organised by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.

Barriers to women

They discussed the barriers facing women in research and ways of overcoming them.

"One big difficulty with science is that it is hard to drop out even for a year, particularly if you're in a field in the forefront of science where things are moving very fast," said Dr Norman Bradburn, an assistant director of the United States National Science Foundation.

"That's where child-bearing and childcare issues become detrimental to careers. One of the ideas we have kicked around here is building extra money for childcare into research grants."

Bradburn said another possibility was to have childcare facilities in institutes and laboratories.

Switzerland already has a system of grants for highly qualified women biologists, doctors, mathematicians, and natural and engineering scientists with a degree or doctorate to resume their careers after a break - generally to raise a family.

Quotas

At the workshop, South Korean participants revealed measures that Seoul is implementing to overcome the gender gap.

Between now and 2006, South Korea wants 20 per cent of its scientists to be women and special programmes are being introduced to ensure this happens. However, not all delegates were convinced by this approach.

"I don't believe in quotas," Vicki Sara, head of the Australian Research Council, told swissinfo. "I believe in level playing fields and a fair go for everybody."

In Australia about 20 per cent of professors and senior managers at university are women.

The workshop in Bern also examined other issues including how to attract young scientists to high-risk research.

by Vincent Landon

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