It is no surprise that some European companies do better than others when it comes to employing and promoting women. But what might be a surprise is that their recruitment and retention seem to depend less on the industry sector and more on the culture of individual companies. That's the conclusion reached by the authors of a report just released by the European Commission, Women in Industrial Research: A Wake-up Call for European Industry, which looks at the numbers of female employees in research and development and management positions across the European Union.

Take Schlumberger, for example. It operates in two sectors--oil and information technology--in which women have typically been thin on the ground. But almost 10 years ago, the company adopted a policy designed to increase the number of women at all levels in the business (see box 1), explains Pierre Bismuth, Schlumberger's vice president for personnel and a member of the high-level expert group, STRATA, that wrote the European Community report.

Schlumberger--A Case Study in Diversity

Building on the 81,000-employee multinational's existing diversity policy of hiring staff from different countries in proportion to its activities in each, increasing the proportion of women was not going to be a quick fix. "We wanted to do it in-depth," says VP Pierre Bismuth, by bringing women in at the bottom and ensuring that they "reach the top in the normal way," rather than head-hunting senior women from outside the company.

Schlumberger encounters a lot of resistance among female university students to the notion that they might want to work in science and engineering companies, so it has done a lot to get "women to believe that we have serious opportunities for them." This has involved looking carefully at the language and images that the company's recruiters use and setting up an ambassador programme to take the message directly to female students.

But recruitment is only the first hurdle. "It's nice to be a pioneer," points out Bismuth, but it's also exhausting, which is why the company is determined to build up and retain a "critical mass" of women at all levels. "Once you have more than 10,000 women in the company, it becomes straightforward to continue," he suggests. Thus, Schlumberger's management, which Bismuth admits was once "part of the resistance," has "had to demonstrate commitment every day." The company is determined to show that it understands the need for work-life balance, and Bismuth says that, today, every Schlumberger career review includes a discussion of the individual's personal life and current needs. After all, Bismuth recognises, there are times in everyone's life when your career is the most important thing to you and others when your personal life takes precedence.

And according to Gabriel Marquette, Schlumberger's Director of Technical Coordination, Europe, all this activity has not required any additional financial input on the part of the company. Rather, it has simply been a question of refocusing its recruitment efforts and "taking more time to recruit the right person."

Schlumberger is what Teresa Rees, rapporteur for this and two previous European Commission reports (the ETAN report on the situation of European women in academic science and the Helsinki Group report comparing women in science across 30 European countries), calls a "beacon." Whereas the ETAN report "didn't find any outstanding universities getting things right," and the Helsinki Group turned up "no individual countries that stood out" as being especially conducive to women's involvement in science and engineering, looking at the private sector, there are a number of companies that are "on the path of changing their organisation and culture," notes Rees. The fact that "we do have examples from which we can learn is very good news for Europe," she says. And to make sure that good news gets spread, the first follow-up action to the STRATA report will be the publication of a brochure that highlights best practises in a number of such companies.

This is important because if some companies' efforts to attract and retain women are sublime, others' are practically nonexistent. In following up the STRATA group's good work to date, its co-chair Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann, Head of Anti-Infective Research at Bayer AG, sees "proactively involving CEOs" as essential.

And national governments, too--particularly those in countries that the report reveals currently have the fewest women in industry (see box 2)--"will have to think about their policies very hard," says Rübsamen-Waigmann. "There is no remedy other than having companies and national governments look very carefully at what they need to do regarding child and elder care," she asserts. Currently, she highlights, female scientists in countries across Europe are more likely to be unmarried and to have no or fewer children than their nonscientist sisters do. That's because "if governments don't do what they should, then companies have to compensate," points out Rübsamen-Waigmann's co-chair Ragnhild Sohlberg, a vice president of Norsk Hydro, and "if companies don't do it either, the women have to pick it up." Sohlberg ought to know: Her homeland, Norway, which has excellent child-care provision, bucks the prevailing European trend. There, "the probability of a woman who has two children having a third is higher for career women than for noncareer women," she says.

What it comes down to is a sense of balance. "It is very important that women and men can balance three arenas," says Sohlberg: community life, work life, and personal life. What's more, Rees believes that imbalance is increasingly unacceptable. "New generations simply won't have it; they want better balance," she warns. Ignoring this trend will cost both the public and the private sectors through increased recruitment, retraining, and underutilisation of staff.

And there is another reason why it is foolish for companies not to heed the Commission's wake-up call. For Rübsamen-Waigmann, one of the biggest surprises of working on the report was the discovery that "having more women in research departments is a business need." The reason: Women's increasing buying and decision-making power. "Eighty percent of medical needs [prescriptions, etc.] that are fulfilled are fulfilled by women," points out panel member Jenny Holmes, AstraZeneca's Diversity Director for R&D.

Women in Industry: The Good, The Bad, and the Invisible

Percentage of female researchers in industrial research (taken from the STRATA report, table 3.3):

Ireland

28.2%

Greece

23.9%

Portugal

23.8%

France

20.6%

Denmark

19.6%

Spain

19.4%

Italy

18.5%

Finland

17.8%

Germany

9.6%

Austria

9.0%

All figures refer to 1999 except Austria (1998), France and Italy (2000), and Ireland (2001)

Sex-disaggregated statistics are not available for Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, 19% of researchers in industry are women. In Norway, the figure is 19.6%.

In fact, says Holmes, there is a need to "take diversity beyond gender," and not just because you risk alienating half the population otherwise. If, as the report suggests, "cloned people produce cloned ideas," a company is likely to be more successful if it thinks differently when it comes to its hiring practices. And men have nothing to fear from efforts to increase diversity and improve work-life balance. One of the most interesting lessons from the Schlumberger experience is that when a company takes steps to improve the situation for its female employees "the first to benefit are men," says Bismuth.

Meanwhile, says Rübsamen-Waigmann, CEOs need to realise that if 50% of graduates are women but only 15% of their workforce is female, there is no way that that workforce is going to be of the highest calibre.

The problem of recruiting and retaining women in scientific careers is itself a diverse one, with no single solution. National governments, companies, schools, and individuals all need to play their part. The problem, warns Rübsamen-Waigmann, is that "as long as [the effort] remains fragmented, we're not going to get where we need to be fast enough."