Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Grants only to 'female-friendly' labs

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a UK astrophysicist and a campaigner for the cause of women in science. © IOP
Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a UK astrophysicist and a campaigner for the cause of women in science. © IOP

Grants should only be given to research organisations who have received an award for female-friendly policies, according to a UK scientist who was overlooked for a Nobel Prize on pulsars even though she did much of the work.

‘You wouldn’t be able to get research funding unless you hold one of these awards to show that you are a woman-friendly place,’ said Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. ‘That’s focusing the mind remarkably.’

Prof. Bell Burnell became an advocate for equality in science after her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish shared a Nobel Prize for the work they did together, without her even being mentioned. He won the prize with Martin Ryle in 1974 for his role in the discovery of pulsars.

When she discovered pulsars, pulsating radio stars, in 1967, female researchers were even more under-represented in science than they are today, and the normal situation was for the most senior researchers in a laboratory to get the credit for all of the discoveries.

Now she hopes that her plan will encourage more science laboratories to become more female friendly, by being aware that male norms may not suit women well.

Women opting out

‘You wouldn’t be able to get research funding unless you hold one of these awards to show that you are a woman-friendly place – that’s focusing the mind remarkably.’

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, UK astrophysicist.

Female graduates opt out of a career in science more often than men, for reasons that we do not fully understand, but in part because the science world often does not take into account the demands that having a family can place on women.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh – a fellowship of some of the world’s leading scientists based in the UK – recently asked Prof. Bell Burnell to lead an inquiry looking at the issue in Scotland. ‘We found that three-quarters of the women that graduate in those areas leave the field,’ she said. ‘Given that higher education in Scotland is free, that is quite a wastage.’

In biology, she found that while 70 % of the class would be female, only 10 % of the professors were women. ‘There’s a huge drop-out throughout life, even in areas that start strong in women,’ she said.

There is significant variation in the rates worldwide, as shown by the numbers of women in astronomy.

In the UK, other English-speaking nations and China, the proportion of female astronomers is 15 % – about average, according to Prof. Bell Burnell. However, Japan does poorly at 6 %, while Argentina does much better with 37 % of its working astronomers being female.

The Scottish economy could add GBP 170 million (about EUR 197 million) if it doubled the number of women staying in science, as these women would be likely to earn high salaries, she said.

She believes her plan to ensure grants are only offered to female-friendly laboratories would help change all this. ‘I’m afraid that a little bit of financial pressure works wonders where words don’t,’ she said.

More info