LERU on gender equality: We know the facts, it's time to act!

General Public

It will come as news to no one that fewer women than men hold top positions at universities and research institutions, and that women are more likely to leave a career in research. This has been well documented, but concrete measures to counteract the phenomenon are still lacking. For this reason, the League of European Research Universities recently published recommendations to improve gender balance.  Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Rector of the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and joint author of the paper, talks about what we know, what’s still holding us back, and, most importantly, what we can do about it.

Une version française de cet article est disponible sur : http://blog.mysciencework.com/2012/11/29/excellence-de-la-recherche-et-parite-hommes-femmes-c%E2%80%99est-possible.html

source: http://www.usfca.edu/templates/usf_magazine.aspx?id=4294972569&tid=2147483673
LERU gender equality women in science


Achieving gender balance has long been promoted as an important goal for universities and institutions to strive for. Clearly, progress in this direction has been made over time. But why not more? Today in Europe, among heads of institutions of higher education, only 13% are women. Are the roots of the problem too deep to identify, too obscure to address? Not according to Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Rector at the University of Leiden (Netherlands). “It’s not mysterious,” she says. “We know what to do.”

Dr. Buitendijk’s university is a member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), an association of 21 institutions that aims to promote the values of excellence in research. Simone recently co-authored a report published by LERU, in July 2012, called “Women, research and universities: excellence without gender bias”, addressing the underrepresentation of women in academia. What’s different in this work, though, is that “this position paper does not dwell on [the factors contributing to this imbalance]…Instead we aim to stimulate change”. The LERU universities have made a commitment to action, determining ways to bring about structural change in support of gender balance, and sharing the knowledge of what works to draw women to careers in research and help them stay.

Simone explains that, regarding efforts to achieve gender equality, there is a certain sentiment of If it’s so important, why haven’t we done it yet? “We need to convince people that society is biased and that gender balance brings something,” she says. The vast majority of us don’t realize we are affected by bias and genuinely believe, for instance, that we choose job candidates based purely on merit. But Simone cites a study showing that identical CVs were judged differently by university hiring staff, male and female, depending on the gender of the name attached: the female versions of the same “candidates” were offered, on average, $4000 less in salary, hired in lower numbers, and were less likely to receive mentoring. “Once people understand the problem, that’s half the battle. But how do you make universities, journals, research institutions, researchers, and funding agencies change?”

Simone Buitendijk feels strongly that the role of universities is to lead: “[They] need to tell the world to follow them down this path.” To do so, she believes institutions need to be able to choose a mix of measures designed to improve gender equality in their ranks. “There’s so much diversity across Europe, it’s impossible to have identical goals.” At the same time, it is both possible and necessary to work for gender balance on the European level. The fundamental similarities of the problem outweigh any national or cultural idiosyncrasies and, without a unified effort, individual actors remain too isolated. It is also easier to deny that the problem exists, as the situation may seem quite alright on a local level.

gender balance women in science

Concrete actions for gender balance

What, then, should a European effort include? The LERU paper identifies four priority areas for action,  imperatives for success:

1) committed leadership at the top, put into action by a formal gender strategy and the funding to make it a reality;

2) concrete measures, targeted at specific career phases. These may include “(usually) gender-specific career development measures and (usually) gender-neutral work-life balance measures”;

3) transparency, accountability and monitoring, in order to successfully implement such measures;

4) actively promoting a gender dimension in research

Actions in these areas have already had positive, practical outcomes, and the LERU network makes it a point to highlight and learn from such best practices. The Excellence Initiative, for example, offered by the German Federal Government involved 11 universities. At first, their gender equality efforts were found to be lacking – “It was just lip service,” Simone Buitendijk says – so committees were formed to formally address the issue. Today, it is considered important to have a gender plan, and gives universities a better chance of receiving funding. “So things in Germany are really changing. Versus in the Netherlands,” she adds, where seven points for assessment were established in another Excellence initiative; gender is not among them. “There’s no national incentive policy. It could have really been an opportunity for the government to make it happen.”

Governments are not alone in their ability to encourage gender balance, LERU points out in “Women, research and universities”. Funders of research, for instance, can provide longer funding periods that make these careers more attractive and easier to balance with other demands of life. In a more direct approach, many LERU universities offer mentoring or coaching programs, often aimed specifically at women. At the University of Utrecht (Netherlands), “female scholars in a starting position are invited to address issues related to their way up in academia. Male professors are their individual mentors… But these mentors learn even more than their mentees: [they discover the] hurdles that ambitious women have to take.”

Policies surrounding maternity leave can bring much needed flexibility to a woman’s research career. The University of Oxford (UK) has one of the most generous maternity schemes in higher ed—up to a year’s leave, between paid and unpaid time off—LERU reports, and others address very specific issues faced by scientists having children. KU Leuven (Belgium) allows women who have given birth to extend their funding until the next cycle of grant applications, thereby bridging the gap that would normally arise. At LMU München (Germany), when a pregnant scientist cannot continue her lab work, due to safety concerns, her department can request funds to cover a replacement before her maternity leave has even begun.

Transparency and monitoring are both important tools for ensuring successful implementation of any equality efforts. Equal pay evaluations, for instance, should be conducted regularly and published openly, as is this case at the Universities of Cambridge and of Edinburgh (UK). Going forward, members of the LERU network will share such statistics on their gender balance experiences and engage in a unique program of joint monitoring. This will allow them to learn from each others’ best practices, and potentially provide a bargaining chip: If her own university starts falling behind the others, Simone says, this may serve as an incentive to do better.

In terms of bringing gender into research itself, Simone Buitendijk sees it, in part, as a useful way to get people involved in thinking about gender “without scaring them and making them question their own biases too much.” But its place in scientific investigation is also completely natural, as a factor that may contribute to  experimental error if not taken into account. Indeed, the University of Strasbourg (France) encourages staff to take part in a national census, managed by the CNRS, of teams that include a gender dimension in their research. Publishers, too, can participate in bringing this additional angle to research, where appropriate, by including it in their science policies.


Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Rector, University of Leiden (Photo: Jeroen Oerlemans / Folia.nl)
Simone Buitendijk

With all of these measures increasing in number and extent and gaining support, “I really feel things are changing,” Dr. Buitendijk says. “I also feel like ‘There’s so much to do!’” Much work remains to be done, yes, but Simone senses a motivation in the EU and at many universities to get moving on the solutions, to avoid any further delay. At this very moment, leaders are gathered in Brussels for the 2nd European Gender Summit, examining strategies for improving research and innovation through gender equality. She knows that, at some point, “Brussels will communicate with universities about this. I’m going to start talking to my university now, instead of reinventing the wheel. We already know how to deal with gender equality.”

“These arguments are like those surrounding open access, race, diversity of all kinds,” Simone Buitendijk adds. “It’s about becoming the university you want to be.”


  Find out more: The LERU report, “Women, research and universities: excellence without gender bias” (PDF) http://www.leru.org/files/publications/LERU_Paper_Women_universities_and_research.pdfThe Athena SWAN Charter for women in science: Recognising commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM academia http://www.athenaswan.org.uk/ "Science Faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students", PNAS, September 17, 2012 http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109Prof. Naomi Ellemers, University of Leiden: Researcher on group processes and intergroup relations, including the effects of status differences between groups, diversity in teams and organizations, career development of women and minorities, and motivation and commitment in work teams. http://www.socialsciences.leiden.edu/psychology/organisation/so/staff/ellemers.htmlSTAGES – Structural Transformation to Achieve Gender Equality in Science: a project “to launch structural change strategies addressing the problem of gender inequality in science” http://cfa.au.dk/forskning/forskningsprojekter/stages/   Similar articles on MyScienceWork: Sex in Science Yields Gendered Innovations http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/09/05/sex-in-science-yields-gendered-innovations.html The Truth about Affirmative Action, by Curt Rice http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/06/12/the-truth-about-affirmative-action.html Women in science: Why the persistent imbalance? http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/03/08/women-in-science-why-the-persistent-imbalance.html

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