The Human Brain project events. Photo from

Karin Grasenick

Do we care?

There is rarely a person met stating “I don’t care about equal opportunities and fairness. And I do not think this has any relevance for science or scientific outcomes.” When talking to scientists most of them will emphasise their commitment to ensure equal opportunities in science regardless of gender. They will agree that talented researchers should be encouraged, should have the same access to resources and opportunities to contribute and participate in decision making processes.

This outspoken societal commitment is embedded in funding regimes and programmes like the European Funding Programme Horizon 2020 which defines three objectives to promote gender equality. The first objective refers to the gender balance in research teams, the second targets a proportion for the underrepresented sex of 40% in panels and groups and of 50% for advisory groups. The third objective aims to integrate the gender dimension in research and innovation content itself.

Gender refers to the social construction of women, men, and non-binary persons: societies associate competences, behaviours and attitudes with a person’s biological sex. Expectations and ascribed roles lead to differences in a person’s’ paths through life. For instance by being encouraged to pursue a career path in science or not.

The European Commission provides applicants with a manual explaining in detail that “at the evaluation stage, gender balance in staff is one of the ranking factors that come into play to prioritise the proposals above the threshold with same scores. When it is used, evaluators need to compare the shares of men and women in the personnel named in the proposals (in Part B, section 4.1, of the proposal template) and they will rank higher the proposal with the share closer to 50/50. 

Is it fair?

For some applications this seems to be a reasonable request. The number of doctoral graduates in the fields of studies relevant for the application are indeed quite balanced.

In other fields of study however the proportion of women is much lower, for example in “Information and Communication Technologies” women count for 21% of doctoral graduates, as revealed by the SHE FIGURES 2018 provided by the European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

When differentiating broader fields of studies from specific scientific communities, like e.g. “Robotics” or “Artificial Intelligence” a 50/50 share of women and men in the research teams might be difficult if not impossible to reach.

In this respect a general rule for all applicants that evaluators will rank higher those proposals with a share of women closer to 50% could even be considered as unfair.

Applicants confronted with a criterion that seems to be not achievable in their field of science might react with anger and raise questions like: Why is this 50/50 criterion not considering the number of available scientists in specific fields and on specific career levels? If women choose different fields of studies who is responsible for it? Aren’t the questions of career choices rooted far earlier in life, with school education or even in the age of kindergarten?

Can we do it?

Many scientists are aware of the complex interplay of general societal expectations, individual talents and career choices with responsibilities at organisational level. They contribute substantially to a study and working environment that enhances equal opportunities. To name a few examples of such contributions: They visit schools to encourage women to strive for a scientific career, they reflect and take actions towards unconscious biases when interacting with students, they ensure a fair balance of available time for scientific work and administrative burdens among team members.

All these contributions enhance equal opportunities in the long run, increasing the opportunities for women and men to approach a career path according to their own talents and skills and less impeded by societal stereotypes.

In the short run the question remains if and how all actions undertaken have guaranteed equal opportunities to become a team member and to develop a scientific career further. One approach to evaluate this serious engagement is to compare the actual representation of women with data as presented in the SHE FIGURES. Most universities or science organisations provide further information which enable a better estimation of achievable numbers.

When the proportions of women or men in certain positions – post-doc, junior professor, full professor, leadership position – differ significantly from the reference data (based on the available figures), this should be taken as a clear indication to reflect and take appropriate actions.

Karin Grasenick is founder and managing partner of convelop, a company addressing topics of equal opportunities in research technology and innovation. Karin holds a PhD in biomedical engineering and computer science. She works as a process facilitator, coach and lecturer. As partner of the Human Brain Projhect she coordinates the  Gender Advisory Committee (GAC). The GAC has developed diversity and gender equality activities in close collaboration with her and in coordination with the Directorate and the Sciences and Infrastructure Board in the HBP.  Examples are a Mentoring Programme, Lectures and HBP specific Guidelines.

Further reading:

Ainsworth C, (2015) Sex redefined. Nature News Feature 518:7539.

Elsevier (2017) Gender in the Global Research Landscape. Analysis of research performance through gender lens across 20 years, 12 geographies, and 27 subject area.

European Commission (2019) SHE FIGURES 2018. Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

European Commission (2013) Gendered Innovations. How Gender Analysis Contributes to Research. Report of the Expert Group “Innovation through Gender”.

European Project RRI tools, gender equality

Grasenick K, Kleinberger-Pierer H, Kleinberger-Pierer M (2018) HBP Talent Guideline. “I don’t care who they are, I just want the best person”.  

Grasenick K, Kleinberger-Pierer H, Kleinberger-Pierer M (2018) HBP Publication Guideline. “You know how to write an excellent paper – do you know how to plan your publication strategy”.

Grasenick K, Kleinberger-Pierer H, Kleinberger-Pierer M (2018) HBP Research Guideline. To be honest: funding opportunities changed how we approach gender and diversity in our research.

Huyer, S. (2015) “Is the Gender Gap Narrowing in Science and Engineering?” In: UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030. Paris, France: UNESCO Publishing.

Wallon G, Bendiscioli S, Garfinkel M, (2015) Summary Exploring quotas in academia. EMBO, Heidelberg and Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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