5 steps on The International Women's Day

8 March 2016
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Today is International Women's Day. I must confess to agreeing with those who question the point of a single day, when the issue is important all year round. That said, if a day (or a provocative act, say, in parliament) brings an issue to the forefront and provokes a constructive debate, then so be it, let's celebrate International Women's Day!

This year's UN theme is "Step It Up for Gender Equality". So I ask myself: Do we, in Europe, need to step it up for gender equality in science, technology and innovation?

Step 1: what does the literature say?

According to the She Figures 2015 Report, although there is relative parity in university graduates, women represent only 28% of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction. In 2011, women made up only 33% of EU researchers in all sectors, and are underrepresented in academic positions and in scientific boards.

The literature on gender and scientific excellence collected in the Gender and Science Database shows women scientists encounter more barriers than male counterparts when working to achieve excellence, and they also face difficulty when it comes to their excellence being recognised by their colleagues of both sexes.

A bibliometric analysis carried out by Cassidy R. Sugimoto shows that gender imbalances persist in research output worldwide: Men publish more papers, on average, although the gap differs between fields. Women publish significantly fewer papers in areas in which research is expensive, and are much less likely to be listed as first author. Data from the European Patent Office shows that the level of patent applications from women is 8%, and Germany (50% of EPO applications), has only 6% submitted by women.

In her report for the EC on scientific excellence, Elisabetta Addis provides insight into various elements that could shed light on this issue. She discusses honour (recognition within the scientific community); homosociability (sense of comfort that people feel in the presence of others who are like themselves); gatekeeping (those who hold the key to the gate at each stage, e.g. hiring, funding, publications); feminine invisibility (hiding the sex of a candidate in the hiring process of researchers, increases a woman's chance by 50%); peer evaluation (who we consider peers); excellence and leadership (those valued in the scientific context); and standpoint bias (excellence lies in the eye of the beholder).

In TECNALIA, Ezekiela Arrizabalaga and Lucía Polo, are working on projects related to "women and science": GENDERTIME aims to increase the career advancement of women researchers by understanding existing barriers and designing a systemic approach to implement in universities and RTOs. The project confirmed the existence of the barriers identified in the research, in particular how institutions offer contracts based on project grants, which makes for an especially precarious situation for women, in particular when may choose to have children. The GendERC project researches why success rates of female applicants are lower in the European Research Council grant selection process, than those of male counterparts. Preliminary results show there is an unconscious gender bias in criteria used to define excellence in the research arena (publications, citations, patents etc.).

So, to summarise, there are fewer and fewer women as careers progress; they face greater barriers when striving to achieve scientific excellence; and there are a wide variety of factors that affect access to hiring, career development and financing. Right, so we do need to step it up. But how?

Step 2: Thinking about how to change the system?

In Europe, institutions are key: They set the agenda, they finance projects and they set the rules. My colleague Nerea Anacabe, who works closely with public entities, and I discuss possible measures:

  • Reward gender equal teams with extra points or require gender issues to be addressed in research projects – as H2020 or UN tenders do – and then (you'd think you didn't have to say it) actually ensure they are implemented!
  • Incentivise & reward results achieved by women: For example building on the work of the Basque Institute for Women (Emakunde) wouldn't it make sense that, in its list of indicators that evaluates the performance of RTOs, the Basque Government include a few indicators related to articles published by women, projects led by women or start-ups created by women?
  • Create, support and finance awards & other visibility measures for women. Indeed a study carried out showed that women are clearly underrepresented in international scientific awards, both because fewer women are nominated and because criteria are indirectly discriminatory.

After that, I think that surely education has a role to play, and I speak to Concha Monje Micharet, Assistant Professor of Robotics at the Carlos III University of Madrid, who was happy to share her experience. Her area of expertise is predominantly male, and in her view, young women face many barriers: At a young age (6-10) the same number of boys and girls want to be scientists. But, as they grow older, the number of young girls, who continue to aspire to be scientists, drops considerably because they aren’t encouraged. Those same girls, whose motivation & conviction is enough to overcome the first barrier, then find more when applying to university; they are even told by career advisers not to apply, that it is a career for men.  And finally, when they enter the workplace they are often the only women in their department. Concha tells me of a modest but successful programme they have: Workshops led by women, in order to bring female technicians and scientists into the limelight. This contributes to generating role models for students and gives young women someone to look up to.

Step 3: So what can RTOs do?

Ziortza Goiri, Director of HR Policies, has taken part in GENDERTIME, and she agrees it's useful to have a framework: "It's not about positive discrimination, it’s about identifying systemic barriers and working to overcome them." Similarly, Rafa Ruiz, HR Director shares his view: "Having recently participated in various debates on the topic, my conclusion is that if we want motivated and committed talent – in particular women – and we want them to be successful in the international arena, we will have to support them to achieve excellence."

Looking at specific measures, a general consensus arises: we should start by encouraging researchers to take part in awards and then publicise their achievements widely. Our very own Andrea Blanco won the Ada Byron award for technological women in 2014 and this year another colleague, Yolanda de Miguel, has been shortlisted.

We could keep organising roundtables about women in technology and business like TECNALIA Ventures did, and as already reported. But more often, including our own researchers as experts, and making a greater effort to attract participants.

We should also promote participation of our female researchers in conferences, in networks, and as primary authors of papers. Visibility & networking should be priorities in the career development of our researchers, and we need to provide women with the appropriate tools, support and encouragement to do so.

We can launch a monitoring programme where researchers discuss their career plans. I agree with Steve Jobs that "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward", but I believe that each dot has a part to play in conforming the picture of your life. Having someone with a view of the bigger picture, who can guide and advise you in the key moments of your career and your life, is paramount to enabling you to see how your dots connect. Indeed, for now, whether fair or not, our domain is dominated by indicators. So mentors and mentees need to discuss which are the most relevant, set some realistic goals and talk about how to achieve them.

This is all very well, but does this mean I have to wait for institutions to change their policies, metrics to change and my organisation to implement innovative measures?

Step 4: What can I do?

Those who know me know I couldn't finish without talking about Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and her best seller Lean In. She talks about "internalising the revolution"; about focusing on what women themselves can change, by taking part, by stepping forward, by leaning in. The starting point is asking what you would do if you were not afraid. What is your ambition? How do you want to shine?

In order to do that, she discusses the importance of coming forward to sit at the table where decisions are made and what it means to "have it all", a notion hammered into our brains by earlier generations. The chapter titled "Don't leave before you leave" talks about how women reject challenges as soon as they know they are pregnant, in anticipation of maternity leave, i.e. women create their own barriers in addition to already existing ones. And finally, I love this one, she talks about how important it is to choose the right partner that will accompany you on the way. If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend the read.

Step 5: Let’s step it up!

Let’s go back to where it all started: It’s International Women's Day, the 8th of March (incidentally my husband’s birthday, so that must be a sign right?!).

So are we on the right track? It seems so. But we need to do more and do it faster.Yes, we need to step it up for gender equality, starting today, and for the rest of this year.

So that when this day comes around again next year, we can say we made an effort, we made a change, we stepped up, we levelled the playing field just a little for our talented researchers and made them proud to be researchers in TECNALIA.

Ciara O'Higgins


Ciara O'Higgins

De origen franco-irlandés y multilingüe tiene una trayectoria de más de 15 años en el ámbito de la internacionalización de empresas, en particular en estrategias para la internacionalización de servicios avanzados, la creación y gestión de redes y alianzas internacionales y el desarrollo de competencias interculturales para los negocios.

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Author:Ciara O'Higgins
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