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Geoghegan-Quinn plans concerted gender push

Study finds women file just 8 per cent of European patents

European Commission officials are planning a multi-pronged assault on the under-representation of women in EU research programmes, as a component of the Horizon 2020 programme that will be unveiled later this month.

The European Gender Summit to be held in Brussels this week will hear, for example, that despite making up 19 per cent of researchers in industry, women file just 8 per cent of patents at the European Patent Office.

Summit organisers hope that the meeting will shape a manifesto that makes concrete recommendations for Horizon 2020, tackling both women’s lower participation in blue-skies research, such as through the European Research Council, and in innovation. Since ERC advanced grants began in 2008, only 12 per cent of such grants have gone to women, who hold an estimated 18 per cent of chairs at EU universities.

A draft of the manifesto, based on a public consultation, calls for “financial incentives”such as provision for research grant applicants to ask for money to cover parental leave and childcare costs as well as requirements for all applicants to say how gender-balance issues will be addressed in their research projects.

Advocates of such changes believe the patent data demonstrates that gender bias is having an economic, as well as a personal impact. Speaking to Research Europe ahead of the event, Patricia Reilly, a member of research and innovation commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s cabinet, says the Commission recognises the economic imperative and is considering a combination of rules and incentives within Horizon 2020. “There’s a lot of scope to put in requirements that are gender related,” she says. Reilly also pledged a series of training programmes and public campaigns with which the Commission plans to tackle gender imbalance in research.

The gender summit, which takes place on 8 and 9 November, is supported by the Polish Presidency of the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European Science Foundation.

According to Wiebke Schone, a researcher at Furtwangen University in Germany, women were named on just 8 per cent of all applications at the EPO between 2003 and 2008, although the percentage varied by country. Women researchers in Scandinavia produced the most patents per head. The team hoped to find original reasons for the discrepancy, but their survey flagged up an age-old problem. “We asked how much does childcare influence your creativity and innovation at work,” she says. “81 per cent of women said it was a significant influence compared with only 5 per cent of guys.”

A 2006 study of researchers at the German National Cancer Research Institute also found that where male and female academics had similar levels of funding and highly cited publications, women held significantly lower numbers of patents than their male colleagues.

Lesa Mitchell leads women’s initiatives at the US Kauffman Foundation, which funded this study. She says the problem is both a result of women not putting themselves forward for advisory roles in industry, and not being asked. “Men in the study relied on their network to aid them in commercialising, and the women don’t have that,” she says.

Women’s role in innovation is being taken more seriously because it has become an issue of economics, as well as gender, adds Mitchell. “In many countries the size of the feeder group of PhD-level women has now surpassed men,” she says. “If women are not commercialising their science, we have an economic problem.”

Products and services can also be deficient when any one gender is absent from the innovation process, says Elizabeth Pollitzer, director of the UK-based Portia, which advocates for gender equality in research.For Pollitzer, the Commission has no choice but to wield the potential €80-billion-power of the Horizon 2020 budget as an instrument for change. “For researchers nothing speaks louder than money,” she says.