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Status and Prospects of Women in Science in Europe (Abstract)


Author(s) Mary Osborn

Article discusses differences between European and American women in the science and engineering workforce.

Author(s): Mary Osborn

Europe has a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women in top positions at universities, research institutes, and in industry. A proposal was made to use European Union (EU) money "to correct the gender imbalance in European science while maintaining the emphasis on excellence."

A North-South Divide?

Three trends may be observed regarding the distribution of women in science:

  1. The number of women pursuing careers in scientific and technical disciplines is small in relation to the number trained in such disciplines.
  2. Several European countries have 40 to 50% female university students, but only 2 to 3% female full professors.
  • There is a lateral distinction when individual disciplines are considered: proportionally more women are in biological sciences than in physics or engineering.
  • The higher one goes in any scientific hierarchy, the lower is the percentage of women.

There is less participation of women at all levels in the more highly economically developed northern European countries, with the exception of France, than in the southern European countries. Appointment committees, top national committees, and EU committees that set policy and control funds are mostly male. Within the representation on EU committees, little emphasis has been placed on gender balance. In certain committees, such as the science and technology areas of the European Commission, OCED, UNESCO, and Eurostat, gender and professional/academic rank are not considered. Contrary to practice in the United States, many associations and grant recipients in Europe do not collect or supply gender information.

Interest at the National and International Levels

Various countries are starting to identify and acknowledge the areas in which their female citizens may be undervalued or underutilized. The European Commission and European Parliament are concerned by the low level of female representation in "scientific and technical research in general, and in higher positions in particular." Some recommendations for raising the levels of women in science and top organizational positions include:

  • Organizations should institute policies promoting equal opportunity.
  • Language used by scientific and technical organizations should be reviewed.
  • Statements or actions that reveal unfounded prejudice against women in science should be reviewed.
  • Better instruction in institutional policies is needed.
  • Better instruction in fundraising at the national and international levels would be useful.
  • A written equal-opportunities statement should be required as part of all applications for national and EU programs.
  • Policies emphasizing gender inclusiveness would be helpful.

Osborn noted factors that aided United States women's progress in academe:

  • Concentrated protest by women.
  • Appropriate legislation.
  • The use of class-action lawsuits to enforce the legislation.
  • The media.
  • Women's groups in scientific societies.

European women are only beginning to protest, and existing legislation is not being enforced. Osborn writes that "improvement in the status of women in science in Europe will probably depend on pressure from those with power to initiate change."

Possible Initiatives

Measures taken should aim to ensure that women's contributions to science are judged by objective standards and that women have the same access as men to resources throughout their careers.

More suggestions include:

  • There should be postdoctoral fellowship programs which offer longer support to establish an independent reputation, especially for women who want children.
  • Mentoring should be further encouraged and developed.
  • Funds should be available to finance starting-scientist positions (including money for child care) for especially well-qualified young female scientists.
  • Appointing committees must consider formally whether there are female candidates who qualify, particularly when a position is not openly advertised.
  • Appointing committees should consider not paying for scientific conferences unless women are included as speakers.
  • Appointing committees should be required to consider both a male and a female to fill a committee vacancy but should be left to choose the better candidate.


The consensus reached at the 1993 EU international workshop encourages for national governments and granting agencies, the European Commission, and the European Parliament, to:

  • Ensure that qualified women are included on the top EU committees that set policy--that is, IRDAC, CODEST, and CREST--as well as on committees that allocate scientific and technical funds.
  • Collect, monitor, and publicize on a yearly basis statistical data from EU member states and from EU programs relevant to women in scientific and technical research.
  • Take the initiative in developing positive action programs for women in science. Longer-term "ad personam" positions should be favored over shorter-term fellowships.
  • Use EU Structural and Social Funds to increase the entry of women in-scientific and technical fields and to train women in technical positions.
  • Encourage the Task Force for Human Resources to:
  • Fund EU-wide women's networks.
  • Support women's studies in science and technology designed to address factors that affect science education and the tendency of girls to self-select out on scientific and technical subjects and that influence the entry and reentry of women into scientific and technical research.
  • Use future EU programs, as well as the Fourth Framework Program, to promote equal opportunities for women in scientific and technical research.
  • If sufficient progress cannot be made using persuasion and the measures suggested above, consider further legal measures or financial pressure to enforce the process. A very effective measure would be to require that all industrial firms and academic institutions set up and document programs to increase the representation of women in scientific and technical research at all levels as a condition for receiving EU funds.

Achieving equity for women in science is a problem that should no longer be ignored at the national or the EU level. The benefits of correcting the situation will help address the projected decline in the number of male researchers, increase the diversity of the scientific work force, and improve European competitiveness in science and technology.

--abstract by Juliet Midgley

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Cite this page: "Status and Prospects of Women in Science in Europe (Abstract)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/27/2006 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, December 6, 2016 <>