Even though women have been well represented in Europe’s laboratories since the start of the Framework Programmes, the number of female professors remains stubbornly low, therefore we need to promote stories of successful women, says Dr Claudie Haignere, a former astronaut and the president of Universcience, a French centre that teaches young people the value of scientific and technological discoveries.
Based on your experience, how do you think we could attract equal numbers of boys and girls to scientific studies? Is it a question of image or upbringing or education, for example?
‘The truth is that there are too many countries where parity is not achieved; and yes women are still reluctant to progress into certain sectors of science and technology – like computer science, physics, maths, or engineering. In France, at present, 27.8 % of students in these fields are women; yet we know that for instance girls perform as well as boys in mathematics. Girls censor themselves; they lack confidence. Education and family have an important role in this, because they teach girls not to expect things. I would say that education should be at the heart of a change of attitudes. Education in school, the formal way, and also the informal education you find in science centres and museums, where there is maybe more freedom to be creative. At Universcience, we take very seriously our responsibility to provide citizens with a democratic space – where everyone is equal – to engage with science.’
There is the problem not only of women leaving research, but of those who stay in research not being promoted to the best jobs. Why is that, and what can we do to address it?
‘There is a lack of confidence, but I would say also there can be a tendency in selection committees – even by women in those committees – to discriminate against women. So the fight for equality must be undertaken everywhere.’
You have been involved in several initiatives to promote gender equality in research, such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. How important have those awards been?
‘It isn’t enough to promote it intellectually: successful women need to be visible role models.’
Dr Claudie Haigneré, President, Universciences
‘Reports have clearly shown that the success stories of women in science are not visible enough, yet we know that women who are successful can act as multipliers to promote equality in science. Young ambassadors are particularly important, because the younger generation are inspired by the generation that is closest to them.
‘Awards such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO are important, because the winners can serve as role models and inspire others in the future. Women must be fully committed to inspiring younger women and, beyond being mere examples of success, they must communicate their passion for their work.’
What’s the risk if we do nothing?
‘Integrating the gender dimension into basic and applied research encourages excellence in science, engineering, research and policy. Today this is done through strategies, programmes and projects, but it needs to be promoted at all stages of the research cycle.
‘If women scientists are not visible, and if their successful careers are not in public view, they cannot serve as role models to attract young women into scientific professions and convince them to build research careers. It’s vital that this waste of talent is addressed if we are to boost European competitiveness and innovation.’
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