Which is the best European country in which to work as a woman scientist? Until recently the judgement has been made largely on the basis of hearsay and conjecture. But now a meaningful comparison can at last be made on the basis of hard facts.

The Helsinki Group * report, ? National Policies on Women and Science in Europe,? which was published earlier this month, sets out the situation across the 15 EU member states and a further 15 countries associated with the EC?s 5th Framework Programme. The results are a surprise. Although some countries are undoubtedly more progressive than others in terms of female friendliness, when it comes to women scientists progressing up the career ladder the picture is similarly dismal across the continent. All countries show the same ?scissors diagram? for women?s participation in academia, with roughly equal numbers of men and women entering the sciences at the undergraduate level, but a steady decrease in the percentage of women moving through PhDs and assistant and associate professorships into full professor positions.

"Sweden probably has the best policies," says the report?s author, Professor Teresa Rees. But at the same time it has advancement "statistics that are gruesome." The Nordic countries have a reputation for making excellent child care provision, and although "child care facilities are vital" to women?s advancement, Rees says that the Swedish situation shows that women?s failure to climb the science career ladder is not just down to motherhood. It?s clear that "it?s not enough just to do the obvious things." Instead, she says, it?s essential that we "get into the interstices of the culture" to understand the way in which inequalities arise.

In fact, argues Rees, a social scientist from Cardiff University, UK, the report reveals that "it isn?t necessarily policies targeted towards women that have the best effect." She points to Spain and Portugal, countries that have seen massive expansions of their higher education sectors in recent years, and a concurrent increase in the number of women in faculty positions that has come without programmes aimed specifically at the advancement of women. "Any major expansion or reorganisation can be quite good for disturbing the status quo," she observes.

Rees is at pains to stress that the Helsinki Group is not calling for "special measures for women that will compromise science." Rather what this and the earlier ETAN report (which is now available in 5 languages, including, most recently, Spanish) show is that "existing measures and structures are actually skewed in such a way as to benefit men." The result? "Mediocre men are getting opportunities denied excellent women," says Rees.

So there are pragmatic reasons for the governments, research councils, scientific associations, institutes, and universities that will be receiving the report to take note. Such enlightened self-interest is behind moves afoot to increase recruitment and advancement of women faculty in Germany, "one of the most old-fashioned climates, but also the country that has gone furthest in taking this on board in recent years," according to Rees. German universities face a wave of retirements in the next 5 to 10 years leading to "a real recruitment crisis." The Germans are discovering that one way to fill vacancies is to target women who have lost out on careers after taking a break to have children.

According to Rees, progress is also being made at the European level. The 6th Framework Programme shows a "giant step forward" compared to FP5, she says. The FP5 target of 40% female membership on all panels that evaluate and manage EU-funded research, "jolly nearly achieved" on some, says Rees, remains in place. In addition, all calls for tenders for EU research will now make it clear that all applications are expected to pay attention to the gender dimension where appropriate, and proposals that don?t do so are "much more likely to get turned down because of it."

Meanwhile an "interesting side effect" of the formation of the Helsinki Group has been a considerable increase in the sharing of best practice between countries. If one country pioneers a scheme, someone will often be invited to other countries to talk about it. Such exchange and twinning has been taking place particularly between the accession countries and existing member states, says Rees.

Universities? human resources strategies come in for particular criticism in the report, being described as "out of date" and relying "too heavily on nepotism, patronage, and exclusively male networks as recruitment pools." A prime example is Finland, which, says Rees, "has taken to appointing chairs by invitation" instead of application, with the result that "the proportion of women being appointed has declined." Appointment and promotion procedures must be made transparent, says the report, and those involved in recruitment and promotion decision should receive appropriate training in equal opportunities.

The report also recommends that universities become more sophisticated in their approach to judging merit and academic excellence. Seniority, or the length of uninterrupted service in an institution, often appears to be used as a measure of these qualities, so that "anyone who has not had a traditional ?male? career automatically falls at the first hurdle," points out Rees. She praises the work done by the Wellcome Trust, which has introduced the concept of ?academic age,? rather than ?chronological age,? so that career breaks are taken into account when an institution or funder is judging an applicant?s publication record.

As far as Rees is concerned, the most important outcome from the report would be an "acknowledgement that what we thought were benign, liberal institutions, actually are systematically, indirectly discriminating against women in every country." She would like to see policy-makers acknowledge that "this is extremely bad news for the European region as a knowledge-based economy, and that therefore these forms of discrimination need to be combated with some urgency."

What can women scientists themselves do to ensure that this report, and the work being done by the Helsinki Group, has an impact? "Network with each other, exchange experiences," Rees says. She cites the " MIT experience" as an example of the good that can come when women talk to each other. And women need to put themselves forward for editorial boards, research council committees, and so forth. "Women tend to wait to be asked," she points out, so they "need to promote each other" or promote themselves. Finally, says Rees, "take the issue seriously." Just because you don?t personally feel discriminated against "doesn?t mean it?s not happening." The figures in the report speak for themselves, she says. "Look at the statistics and tell me there isn?t something systematic happening here."

* The Helsinki Group on women and science is the group of national civil servants from 30 countries tasked with raising the profile of this issue at the European level.