Gendered construction of scientific excellence

Thank you very much for your kind invitation to come here. I bring you greetings from Wales, which is another small country, much smaller than yours.

I know that you are sensing some frustration today in trying to improve gender equality in your universities. But I have to say that some of us in the rest of Europe dream of having 17 percent of our professors who are women, and we fantasise about having a Women and Science Committee like this, taking such innovative actions as it has. And we dream of universities coming up with initiatives like those we heard of this morning.

So while I’m sure it’s not good to be complacent, compared to the rest of us, you are in a very good position!

But I would like to say something about the country that I come from, Wales. Because we have a newly instituted elected assembly (after a 600 year gap) – where there is a fifty-fifty gender ratio of elected members. As far as I know, this is the best in the world, even for places like Scandinavia, and we boast about this terrifically. And indeed in our cabinet, five out of the nine cabinet ministers are women.

I’ve recently become a Pro-Vice Chancellor in my university, a very curious experience for me. Because, really, all my life I have been working on gender equality: I have been acting as an expert adviser for the European Commission on gender mainstreaming, as you heard and an Equal Opportunities Commissioner. It has always been obvious to me what employers, what universities, companies and governments should do to promote gender equality. But since becoming a Pro-Vice Chancellor, and having the opportunity to do something about it myself, I have discovered that it is not as easy as all that! It is like turning a super-tanker towards a different direction. And so I know the frustrations that many of you experience. You try all these policies, you seek to do all these things, and still the statistics come out in a rather disappointing fashion.

What I would like to do today is to talk about some international examples of attempts to do something about the agenda that we are facing today. But I want to move beyond achieving some sort of gender balance among staff, to look at the role of gender in the construction of scientific excellence. This gets into the woodwork of things, into the organisation of scientific institutions, and their processes, the way in which things are done, which in themselves can lead to the pattern of statistics that we been hearing about.

It seems to me that in terms of gender equality, there are some obvious things that one can fix. There are then less obvious things that one can try to fix. And then there are some really difficult tricky things that we don’t even recognize. And those are the ones that I want to try and get at, if I can.

But we have come a long way, and we do need to celebrate that. In my own lifetime I was never taught by any women professors. I never knew any women professors, when I was a student. Quite recently I faced an all male interview panel of ten. When I was offered a three year research contract at a university many years ago, I was told that it was on condition that I would not “get myself pregnant” during the course of the three years! I thought about it, and I did sign the contract in the end, on the grounds that if anyone got me pregnant, it wouldn’t be me! The university could jolly well take me to court. So we have come a long way, I think.

The European Commission’s Women and Science Unit

I would like to summarize some of the things that the Women and Science Unit at the European Commission’s Research Directorate-General has been doing. I have worked with them for some years, and I am impressed by what they have been doing. Mme Edith Cresson, when she was the Commissioner, endorsed a Communication in 1996, which said that everything that the Directorate did would involve mainstreaming gender equality.
I was the rapporteur for the ETAN-report (1) on women and science, which you may have come across. We discovered, using a huge political arithmetic approach looking at the statistics, that:
  • whatever the country (with their respective equality policies or lack of),
  • whatever the discipline, and
  • whether women were the majority or minority of students in that discipline,
  • that the proportion of women among the professorate, went down to somewhere around ten percent in every country, in every discipline.
In other words, men where chosen disproportionate to their number in the recruitment pool at every stage of the academic hierarchy in every discipline, in every country. It took a lot of work to get all the statistics, just to put all that together. But what that showed is something funny is happening. 

I could put that in more technical language, but you know what I mean.
When we presented the results of the ETAN-report to the Ministers of Science and Education of all the then EU member states, I started off, very ill advisedly using the fine British sense of irony. ‘Look, we train these women up to be PhDs in astrophysics, but then if they ‘get themselves pregnant’, that’s the end of their career! Since a lot of women scientists get pregnant, this is clearly a waste of public money. 

Hence the policy recommendation is that we should not let women near laboratories, not even in schools! We should ban them from any contact with science whatsoever! We could save a lot of money for the Education and Science Ministries!’ Of course, the idea was, “well, we clearly don’t want to do that, so what is option two?” But I am sure one of the Ministers, from a country I shall not identify, was making a few back-of-the-envelope calculations of savings, in rather worryingly way.

Many of the members of the ETAN-group were themselves women scientists. Senior women scientists will very often tell you that there is nothing wrong with the system. ”I got there, so the system works”. They are the first to deny that there are problems. Why? Because scientists want to believe that universities are liberal meritocratic institutions that are organised around the principle of excellence. And in a sense, you have to believe that in order to play a part in university life.

But the production of these statistics, by country, by discipline, showed that there were consistent patterns of gendered promotion. Even having good work life balance and childcare policies in place didn’t necessarily generate a higher percentage of women professors. The statistics were an important as a consciousness raising exercise for the women scientists themselves. The Women and Science Unit then commissioned a study of women and science in the Central and Easter European countries including the Baltic States. The ‘ENWISE’ report shows a very different situation for science and the academy and while there are some differences, there are also many similar stories about women and science (2).

The Women and Science Unit also coordinates the Helsinki Group, which is made up largely of representatives from Science and Education Ministries of countries that participate in the Framework Programmes, of which Norway is a member. It has done considerable work in developing comparative statistics and equality indicators on women and science as well as reviewing national policies and infrastructure designed to promote gender equality in universities (3). The Helsinki Group has acted as a catalyst to the development of initiatives and policies as different countries can hear about the experiences of others and what works and what doesn’t: although not every project is necessarily transferable. This benchmarking has been very helpful, and it has certainly led to many of the Helsinki Group countries setting up, for example, Women and Science Committees.

The Women and Science Unit has taken a lead, as a result of the Mainstreaming Communication, in insisting that there should be a gender balance on European Commission Scientific Committees. This has put the onus on member states to find appropriately qualified women scientists.

The Unit also commissioned work on women in research and development in industrial research (which I would call the private sector) (4). Europe is under tremendous competitive pressure from other global regions in the world, some of which make much better use of women as a human resource. Some global corporations have developed, I think, cultures and policies where women scientists can thrive. While some private sector companies are considerably worse on gender equality than the universities, some are considerably better.
One of the more interesting pieces of work done by the Women and Science Unit I think has been to look at the gender dimension of research itself. It looked post hoc at a whole number of large projects that it had funded under the Fifth Framework Programme, and said “To what extent have the researchers examined the gender dimension of the research topic? (5).

Now, some topics, like the development of solar energy panels, don’t really have a gender dimension. But many do especially medical projects. I was particularly struck by the large medical trials undertaken on men, which came out with the result that aspirin is good for heart disease. However, when it was then prescribed to women as well, without having being clinically tested upon them, all sorts of contra-indications began to show. Now, for me this isn’t a feminist issue so much as about the need to do rigorous research. Doing good research involves addressing the gender dimension, as appropriate, of whatever the research topic is. Gender is a key organizing principle in our society, there are biologically differences; we need to take those into account when we do research.

The Women and Science Unit have invested considerably in gender studies and women studies, and value its contribution to understanding women and science. It has sought to introduce some of that research into policy debates, and that’s important.
It’s also tried to introduce gender mainstreaming into the Sixth and the Seventh Framework Programmes. Currently you now can no longer apply with a single sex research team, unless you have a real objective justification. You must have a Gender Action Plan. And you must describe the gender dimension of the research that you are undertaking. Now this hasn’t quite worked as well as one might have hoped, many researchers are not sure how to address it and unfortunately monitors and evaluators are not trained to recognize whether that’s being done properly. Hence there’s a bit of a rethink about how best to tackle this in future.

But we need to think about gender in the research processes, not just about those who are doing it. I like to move on, if I may, just to make three points, about what I would call the gendered construction of scientific research. To what extent is gender playing a role in what we consider to be scientifically excellent? I think is really important.

Gendering science

Who decides what is excellent?

My first point relates to the gender balance among those who decide what is excellent.
Who decides who will be recruited or promoted or sponsored or given money? Who decides what research projects will be funded, or rather whose research projects will be funded? Who decides whose work will be well evaluated or even rewarded prizes? I am amazed at how many prizes are given in the scientific community. In the ETAN report, we analyzed the gender balance of the main international and national prize-giving committees throughout the world. You could count the number of women on them on about two hands. This is men giving men prizes, by large.

Fellows of learned societies and academies tend to select their own successors, often in their own likeness. Who is invited to be on editorial boards on scientific committees? Who decides on research priorities in the governments departments, in research councils?
Now, the European Union has set this target of forty percent on scientific committees, and we know some countries, like Norway, have gender balance legislation, but the vast majority do not. So what we are seeing, in the terms of who decides, is a very male community determining what is excellent.

So what do we do about this? We need to monitor, we need to measure, and we need to publish the results. And we also need to know that a critical mass of women can invoke a feeling of complacency; there is a danger at that stage of feeling the job is done. We can learn from the private sector here. Some employers who reached a critical mass of women in their companies in research and development found that all that did was make women feel more comfortable, it didn’t actually change the culture. And they plateaued at that point. They had to introduce other policies in order to get a better gender balance in the upper hierarchy of the companies. I think that’s an important point for us to learn.


The second point is about transparency, in processes and procedures. We heard from Virginia Valian about the Wennerås and Wold study (6). The rather challenging title of their article in Nature was ‘Nepotism and sexism in peer review’. It demonstrated the importance of male networks and connections in the construction of excellence. There were found to be links between many of those awarded scholarships and the members of the Swedish Medical Research Council. Scientific networks are gendered. This poses a real challenge. We need more research in that area.

Finland has a good record in terms of women professors. But Liisa Husu’s work has shown us the importance of gender networks and gatekeepers in the academy (7). Another study (reported in the ETAN report) showed that when some Finnish universities started using headhunters, rather than open transparent advertisements, the proportion of women professors appointed fell. The headhunters were using networks for names to come forward, and they were gendered. Fewer women came through that route.

In Iceland, research by Thoraldsdottir (8) uses discourse analysis in looking at thirty-five placements in the University of Iceland. She discovered that the processes were not necessarily against women or disadvantaging women particularly, but they did provide men with ‘a male bonus’. In other words, they were giving men the benefit of the doubt, in many, many cases. And this correlates for me, with what Virginia was talking about this morning, in terms of the assumption is that the male will be good and will be appointable. The woman has to go further to prove herself.

In Canada, Foschi’s work looks at gender bias and double standards in assessing competence in settings such as teams carrying out scientific research (9). She found differences in marking where the gender was known with that when it wasn’t, so in fact double standards were operating for evaluating competence. Now these are very hard data to argue against. It clearly is happening. The assumption in people’s minds, even women’s minds, is that the men will be better.

In the Netherlands research describes the Matthew effect, or what I would call the ‘halo effect’. People who have all ready done well are expected to be fantastic, and to become more rich and famous. By the same notion there is the Mathilda-effect. Where women work in joint research teams for example, the assumption is made that is was the man that was really doing the research and that she was helping.

Now all of these things are difficult nebulous research areas. It is difficult for us to grab hold of it and say, okay, what we need to do is…. But we do clearly need transparent competency based appointment processes. We need to modernize human research management in European universities. I am not talking strictly about Norway, but it is extraordinary how antiquated they are in many European countries. After all, good men have nothing to fear from open competition. And when we talk about opening up networks: this should benefit some men too as not all men are part of the golden circle of power and influence. Members of ethnic minorities, for example often lose out through these close networking processes, it is not just women. So we need to insist, I think, on transparency.

Organisation of science

My third and final point is about the organization of science itself. Now, there is a danger here of course, of degenerating into biological determinism or biological assumptions. And one has to avoid those traps.

I think we still have the model of the single hero, leading, as opposed to genuine teamwork in scientific research in universities. We still celebrate single disciplines in the way we organize our universities, although we give a lot of lip service to interdisciplinary work. It is interesting looking at research in the United States here, about women in the lifesciences (10)

Women are the majority of students in the lifesciences in the universities, but there is the same kind of trajectory as in other disciplines, the number of women reduces at each level of the academic hierarchy. But they are doing rather well in the small and medium sized enterprises in lifescience companies in the States. However, they are not doing so well in the big pharmaceutical companies; they tend not to be the leaders of laboratories and so on.
Now, why are they doing better in the small lifescience companies in the States? 

Well, they are organised in interdisciplinary teams, which means that people are valued irrespective of which discipline they come from. They are valued equally because they all have something to offer. In the big pharmacy companies, chemists tend to dominate and look down on the bioscientists. So the small companies tend to be more interdisciplinary, less hierarchical and more team based. And as a result, women are really prospering in these companies.

The next issue under this heading, I think, is about the allocation of positions in our universities. If we think about how many chairs we have in engineering and the other subjects that are quite male dominated, there will be quite a number. There will be relatively few in gender studies or women studies. In other words, the allocation of established chairs is historically driven by the old infrastructure of disciplines. But while some new areas, such as the very male dominated Business Studies, have been successful in acquiring more chair positions, it is quite rare to find many chairs in interdisciplinary work, or in gender studies and those emerging fields, where many women work.

I think it was very interesting in Sweden when they had such a backlash over the Tham-professorships. While these 30 new chairs were not exclusively for women, the idea was that they would actively encourage women to apply to improve the poor position of women among the professoriate. But following the backlash, the revised policy focused on creating more chairs in those areas where there were many women scholars. That proved more acceptable and arguably fairer.

We also need to look at gendering of networking, and how that operates. University leaders talk these days about succession planning for leadership positions. How is this done? Who‘s doing it? What criteria are being operating? I think these procedures should be transparent.

So we need to, if we are to have succession planning in universities for posts such as heads of schools, deanships, pro vice chancellors and so on, we need to make the criteria explicit. And that means finding out what they are. I am not entirely sure that we are able to articulate them clearly at the moment.

We also need to think about work-life balance and career breaks. Swedish research has shown that mothers out publish non-mothers: this is not widely known! But the issue of career breaks and work-life balance and working part time affects how seriously women are regarded, and hence their supposed level of commitment. People are not regarded as committed if they undertake family responsibilities. When we measure output for promotion, we tend to be impressed by the quantity of work that people have produced. I think we need to shift that to looking at the quality. (Almost) anyone can publish a lot if they have unlimited access to time. The critical thing is the quality.

What can we do? We should make better use of gendered manpower data in our strategic planning. The women professors in MIT, who measured the size of their laboratories and found that they were smaller than those of their male colleagues threatened class action before the matter was addressed.

I think we should sponsor research on the underbelly of the organization of science. We should calculate the cost of not promoting equality. For example, what does it cost to re-recruit and train women who leave because of inadequate work/life balance policies, or because of bullying, sexism or lack of belief in fair transparent promotion systems? We always hear in the universities: ”ah, I suppose we can introduce equality policies, but it is going to cost money, we’ll need a budget’. Well, I think we should expose what it is already costing us relying on gendered networks, nepotism, patronage and so on, both in terms of lost women but also in terms of compromising on excellence.

If we look at the imbalance among the professoriate, given what we know about the distribution of intelligence being fifty-fifty, presumably, and given what we know about the distribution of men and women among the undergraduate population, then that is costing us something, we are throwing away a resource, and it would be useful I think to try and put some figures on that. I think we can learn from industry. Astra Zeneca talks about how ‘cloned people produce cloned ideas’. Therefore we need more diversity in our research teams to foster innovation. We need to learn I think from those companies, particularly those that are engaged in research and development work, about what they are doing to try to move beyond this critical mass. To achieve some proper gender balance because of the business sense that it makes. It is much we can learn there.

I think we need to integrate gender equality more into the business at the universities. And certainly in my own country that’s been easier if we link it to diversity more generally: if we link it to the other equality dimensions people seem more comfortable with that.
What have I tried to do at Cardiff University? I have tried, first of all, in our instructions to department heads about their strategic plan to insert a heading: “What are you going to do to promote equality and diversity?” The Canadians have a scheme where they allocate budget to their departments, but they only get 80 percent of it, and they can only claim the final 20 percent at the end of the year if they have reached their equality targets. Money speaks.

Similarly, in the criteria for promotion, we have added a criterion: what are you doing to further the university’s mission to promote equality and diversity? I hope this will mean that all those staff who have been active in this field will have an opportunity to highlight their contribution and see it valued. We are also introducing it into staff review and development, as a heading. So I am trying to mainstream it, to get it into the woodwork of the existing processes and getting it into the in-tray of people as part of what they are already doing, not to say: here is an additional thing you have to do, but in order to do what you are doing well, you have to address this issue of equality.

The research councils insisting on a gender balance and action plans and gender dimensions to research in the same way that the framework programme has done it, is something that I am working on as a member of a research council.
But one of the challenges, I think, is ‘seeing’ the good, invisible women that are in our department. I know about getting older and becoming middle aged and becoming invisible! But we do have very good women in our departments who are invisible. Why? Because they are kind of quiet. We see the highflying men who are coming up. I think this relates to what Virginia was talking about in terms of the ‘grindstone and the ‘stand out’ issue. We need to recognize these pearls for who they are.

And finally I think we need to benchmark.


So, to conclude then, although you think you are facing tremendous challenges and are only making slow progress, you are the envy of most of the rest of us. But also you have a responsibility to the rest of the world, as a leader in this field. We are relying on you to show us the way. You have already made more progress than most of us, so really this is a heavy burden that you are carrying!

I think the trick is to link the promotion of equality to the promotion of excellence. We should focus on the issues of quality and excellence; the gendered organization of research is actually standing in the way of that. This is inhibiting us from achieving our core business. We need to persuade people, including the finance director and other people, that this is the way to achieve it. To achieve global competitiveness in research and development, it is our use of our human resources that is key.

But researchers are increasingly mobile - they can travel anywhere. And they are going to be attracted to those universities that will promote excellence through equality. And they will not allow their gender, or what else it is to stand in the way of their progress. We need to raise the stakes on quality. And one of the main tools for us is promoting equality. We need to allocate resources and opportunities on the criteria of excellence, not on the criteria of gender.

Thank you.
1. Osborn, M., Rees, T., et al (2000) Science policies in the European Union: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality: A report from the ETAN Network on Women and Science. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
2. Blagojevic, M., Bundele, M., Burkhardt, A., Calloni, M., Ergma, E., Glover, J., Groó, D., Havelková, H., Mladenic, D., Olesky, E.H., Srettenova, N., Tripsa M.F., Velichová, D., and Zvinkliene, A. (2004) Waste of talents: turning private struggles into a public issue Women and Science in the Enwise countries. Brussels: Directorate General for Research, European Commission
3. Rees, T (2002) The Helsinki Group on Women and Science: National Policies on Women and Science in Europe Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
4. Rübsamen-Waigmann, H., Sohlberg, R., Rees, T., Berry, O., Bismuth, P., D’Antona, R., De Brabander, E., Haemers, G., Holmes, J., Jepson, M., Leclaire, J., Mann, E., Needham, R., Neumann, J., Nielson, C. N., Vela, C. and Winslow, D. (2003) Women in Industrial Research: A wake up call for European Industry Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
5. See for example Laurila P, and Young, K (2001) Gender in Research: Gender Impact Assessment of the specific programmes of the Fifth Framework Programme: An overview Brussels: European Commission Directorate-General for Research
6. Wenneras, C. and Wold, A. (1997) ‘Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review’ Nature Vol. 387, No. 5, pp. 341-343
7. Husu, L (2004) Gate-keeping, gender equality and scientific excellence’ in European Commission (ed) Gender and Excellence in the Making Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
8. Thoraldsdottir, T (2004) ‘Engendered opinions in placement committee decisions’ in European Commission (ed) Gender and Excellence in the Making Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
9. Foschi M (2004) ‘Blocking the use of gender-based double standards for competence’ in European Commission (ed) Gender and Excellence in the Making Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
10. Smith-Doerr, L (2004) Women’s Work: Gender Equality vs. Hierarchy in the Life Sciences Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Teresa Rees

Teresa Rees er professor i samfunnsvitenskap ved Cardiff University i Storbritannia
Rees har arbeidet som rådgiver for EU-kommisjonen i spørsmål knyttet til kjønn og høyere utdannelse, arbeidsmarked, regional økonomisk utvikling og forskningspolitikk. Hun har deltatt i arbeidet med flere EU-rapporter innen feltet Kvinner og Forskning, blant annet rapporten National Policies on Women and Science in Europe utarbeidet av ‘Helsinkigruppen vedrørende kvinner og forskning’ og The ‘ETAN’ report on women and science.

Se også