Last week, representatives from over 70 groups of women scientists gathered in Brussels to take part in a conference that was designed to help national and local initiatives be more effective on a pan-European level. In a statement, the assembled representatives declared that the underrepresentation of women in science "is both wasteful of human resources and a serious obstacle for the development of the sciences and for European society as a whole."

The conference was organized by the women in science unit of the European Commission's research directorate, DGXII. This unit was set up in response to a 1998 meeting that concluded that the commission should do more to encourage the participation of women in science. The unit started by setting up a working group to consider potential policy changes and collecting detailed statistics on women in science. Nicole Dewandre, who heads the unit, summed up their mission by saying "women in the European Community do not need crutches; it is society that needs changing." Although the commission has set a target of 40% female participation in the evaluation committees of Framework Programme 5, only 15% of the current 25,000 applications are from women. Dewandre admits "there is much work to do."

In addition to taking advantage of informal networking opportunities, conference delegates made a number of recommendations to the commission. These included:

  • an increased awareness of gender research in science,

  • development of tools to increase the awareness of women-in-science issues, and

  • better training and support for communication, particularly on Internet-based systems.

Delegates also indicated that they hoped that the commission could provide a framework from which their networks could lobby the individual member states of the commission.

To illustrate this final point, Catherine Didion, executive director of the U.S.-based Association for Women in Science, provided an example of effective political lobbying to the conference. Didion explained how intensive work by her organization eventually led to the establishment of a special commission by the U.S. government on the career advancement of women, minorities, and the disabled in science and technology.

Dewandre says the European Commission plans to emulate this success by "suggesting to member states that they enter into a dialogue on how to improve the situation of women in science." The first step toward this dialogue will be taken in November when the commission will host a meeting of civil servants from European Union countries to review policy.