When Helga Nowotny, an Austrian sociologist of science, arrived for a fellowship at Berlin's Institute for Advanced Study in 1981, only one of the 19 other fellows was female. Today, Nowotny is back at the Institute as a visiting academic, and things have changed. "Almost half of the fellows are women," she says. "Sometimes you have to give men a little push. By raising awareness, they will include women in committees and projects."
Researchers across the E.U. agree things are better than ever for women in science but a lot still needs to be done. Despite Europe's growing need for scientific talent, many of its female scientists are still not getting equal opportunities. Roughly 40% of doctoral- degree recipients are women, as are 30% of graduates in science and engineering up from 25% in 1998 yet women make up only 15% of researchers in the private sector. The gender gap is biggest in Austria, where just 9% of researchers are female, and Germany, where the figure is 9.6%. Only one woman, Germany's Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, won a Nobel Prize in science in the 1990s. The science lab is a traditionally male-dominated place. "But if we have invested in women scientists and they drop out, that's a bad return on investment," says Nowotny. "Women are as gifted as men, but you must have some mechanism to encourage women to compete."
The E.U. is trying to bridge the gap by funding initiatives to boost women in science, and by requiring gender-equality action plans in proposals. But many researchers argue that science suffers if factors such as gender are used to determine funding. Plus, such policies focus on women who have already chosen scientific careers; long-term solutions must encourage youth to pursue science. Says Hannele Kurki, a science adviser at the Academy of Finland, "You need to start as early as kindergarten to break down the gender stereotypes." "It's important to get to them when they are young," agrees Jürgen Hambrecht, CEO of the chemicals giant BASF, which runs H20 and Co., a lab that gives children hands-on exposure to chemistry. Girls are important "because of differences in character between men and women. [In the workplace], they are exactly the bridge we need."
Perhaps the best way to inspire young scientists female or male is by example. At the Berlin Institute 20 years ago, Nowotny recalls how the fellows were incredulous that her only female colleague was pregnant: "They said, 'How could she be a fellow when she knew she would be giving birth?'" Today, fellows are encouraged to bring their families: the time of the weekly group dinner has even been moved up so that partners and children can take part. Making a scientific career more family-friendly is one way to help today's women. Investing in the next generation should produce bigger returns for tomorrow's.