For the past 2 months, more than 900 young female scientists from 115 countries have been studying at the first International Women's University (IFU) organized during the world exposition EXPO 2000 in Germany. "We have received the opportunity to exchange ideas across the globe by sitting in one class room," says a Manjula Amerasinghe, an environmental engineer from Sri Lanka. For 100 days, from July until October, the IFU offers a unique curriculum, guided by principles such as international exchange, interdisciplinary approach, gender perspective, interaction of science and society, and integration of art and science. The pilot project is also expected to create an important mentoring network for young women at the start of their scientific career.
The Women's University is located in Hanover and five other universities in Northern Germany. The postgraduate studies at IFU consist of project work and lectures given by 230 female lecturers from 60 nations all over the world. About half of the IFU students who were selected by the German Academic Exchange Service ( DAAD ) come from so-called developing countries. Sixty percent of the participants were supported financially with grants.
Unlike Japan, South Korea, or the United States--where women's colleges have already produced such famous alumnae as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright--the IFU is the first college in Germany where women students work with exclusively female lecturers. Germany´s federal minister of education and research, Edelgard Bulmahn, expects that the IFU will give "a worldwide signal for the equality of women in science and research." The German research ministry supported the project with US$3 million.
"First, we wanted to develop effective instruments to help women gain top positions at universities," explains Ayla Neusel, professor for university research and president of the IFU. "Secondly, we put gender studies in the centre of subjects with great scientific significance." Neusel notes that in Germany there is a lack of female examples for women academics, because less than 6% of university professors are women." All the positions in a women's university are filled by women," she says. "A young female student can then choose between these roles."
Catherine Ganzleben, a conservation biologist from the United Kingdom who participates in the IFU's water project, thinks the new multicultural approach will help to broaden the students' perspective on global water problems. "Women approach problems in a different way to men," says Ganzleben. "They do not seek to present a clear, linear argument with one solution, but instead take a broad, three-dimensional look at the issue, examining relations between influencing factors and perhaps generating more questions than solutions." Amerasinghe agrees. "I have learnt a lot during discussion sessions just listening to the experiences and expectations of other students from different countries," she says.
Neusel also expects the reform model IFU to have favorable effects on the male-dominated German universities: "The universities at Kassel and Hamburg plan to establish courses of studies or research programs for women with the emphasis on gender aspects, interdisciplinarity, and internationality."
After the end of the pilot project in October, an international network is to be established between the IFU-participants. The new network will augment the virtual IFU  that already allows them to maintain scientific contact on the Internet, or to invite other IFU-participants to congresses or conferences. Moreover, this network is also supposed to serve in promoting young women at the start of their scientific career. "Mentoring plays a very important role in fostering a new generation of academics," says Neusel. "Up to now, mentoring tends to be of benefit to young men rather than to favor young women scientists."
In the future, Neusel hopes, the IFU might become a permanent institution, which would then offer an internationally recognized Master's degree. The curricula will be developed on the Internet. Periods of virtual work are to alternate with periods of presence at the IFU in the intended 1-year-long courses of studies. "There is a strong worldwide interest in this completely new, internationally oriented course of studies for women," Neusel says. "We already have a whole lot of applications for the next IFU semester."