A woman’s place in science

14 Apr 2005

A €1m fund to be used to drive up the representation of women in the science and technology sector has been unveiled by Enterprise Minister Micheál Martin, TD.

He announced that three programmes are to be funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) as part of its Women in Science and Engineering Research Initiative. The SFI Principal Investigator Career Advancement Award will provide assistance to academics in getting their research career back on track following maternity, adoptive, carers or parental leave. The SFI Planning Grant and Institute Development Award will provide research bodies with the opportunity to conduct assessments of women’s participation in science and engineering research activities and research management. Finally, the SFI Junior Scholarship aims to encourage more high-achieving women into third-level education and to support them during their undergraduate career.

Countering any suggestion that the programmes would involve any element of positive discrimination or favouritism, the minister emphasised that the programmes would, in common with all SFI programmes, be based on excellence.

Calls for applications under the first two programmes are being made with immediate effect; details of the SFI Junior Scholarship will be announced in the autumn.

Given that EU member states had committed to increasing their research and development spend to 3pc of gross domestic product by 2010 as set out in the Lisbon Agenda, this meant that 12,500 additional researchers would be needed in Ireland, Minister Martin noted.

While more girls than boys take science for the Leaving Cert and are well represented at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in most scientific and technological disciplines, there is a serious gender imbalance further up the career ladder. In industrial research, for instance, women account for less that 25pc of workers and are mostly employed in support roles. Women also hold less than 25pc of the positions on scientific boards and councils and only a tiny percentage of senior academic positions.

“The issue is not simply a matter of equality — ensuring that all careers are open to men and women alike — but also one of ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of researchers in science, engineering and technology to support the knowledge-based economy the Government has committed to building. There is a clear and unequivocal business case for increasing the participation of women in science, engineering and technology in Ireland,” said the minister.

“Women represent a significant and relatively untapped resource from which many of these additional researchers can be recruited. Women who have already left careers in science, engineering and technology can be supported to return and a new generation of young women should be encouraged to pursue scientific and technical careers.

“There are also important benefits of diversity in enhancing the quality of science, engineering and technology by bringing different perspectives to bear on the direction of the science and the outcomes.”

Ireland’s experience is replicated across the EU, where, despite representing 44pc of graduates in science and technology subjects, women make up just 14pc of top academics in these fields. In its new report Women and Science: Excellence and Innovation – Gender Equality in Science, the European Commission sets out the actions required to promote the role of women in science.

“The Irish Government shares the commission’s concern about the role of women in science and I am delighted to say that Ireland is taking a lead with today’s announcement that three programmes will be funded by SFI that is aimed at addressing the under-representation of women in Irish science and engineering research,” concluded Minister Martin.

By Brian Skelly