How does the French academic environment differ from the British, particularly for women? Each year a group of us convene at ESPCI (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris in France) in the form of the International Scientific Committee (ISC). Our role is to assist the Director by providing advice about their research and education. The Governance of ESPCI is to my British eyes arcane, but it apparently operates as a Régie Administrative and is closely linked to the Parisian political structures but with some autonomy. I have been a member of this group since its inception and, with the exception of one year I had to miss, have attended the November meetings annually since 2007. Over the years I have begun to understand the very different organisational structures that ESPCI operates under, and the different education system which has many attractions as well as challenges. I wrote about the impressively broad education the undergraduates receive last year after my previous trip, and that post gives a lot more background to the institution. This year I want to focus on a different aspect, one I feel strongly about, that of gender.
I have always seen France as a country that was ahead of the UK in terms of the numbers of women in science. My reason for believing this was that in my own field of soft matter, that pioneered by Nobel Prize winner Pierre Gilles de Gennes the erstwhile Director of ESPCI about whom I wrote last year, there did seem to be a significant number of prominent women. Women like Dominique Langevin, a winner of the L’Oreal/Unesco FWIS Laureate for Europe in 2005, the late Claudine Williams, Liliane Léger and Francoise Brochard-Wyart. These were women I knew about as an early career researcher and whom I could see had progressed successfully. Undoubtedly de Gennes himself was immensely supportive of women and would have ensured that the women in his field were mentored and encouraged. I had taken this piece of anecdotal ‘evidence’ as typical without really considering the matter. If I thought about it at all I thought that women had an easier path because childcare arrangements worked better in France than the UK, again without giving the matter much thought. (Both Dominique and Francoise have children, 5 in the latter case.) Nothing in my years of visits to ESPCI so far had caused me to reconsider this belief. But this year, several things highlighted that perhaps the French academic scene wasn’t quite as rosy as I believed.
During the first day of our visit we were told about the impressive work carried out within the Institute Langevin, an institute within an institute, which concentrates on ‘Waves and Images’. We had lunch with a number of their scientists, 27 to be precise, so that the 9 committee members each sat at a table with 3 of them, when we talked about their work, their views of the institute and its good and bad points, as well as introducing ourselves and our own work. I mentioned that I put a lot of time into gender/diversity issues in the UK and asked if this was a problem in France. No, the man across the table said to me, most emphatically. I looked round the room and noticed a not unfamiliar dearth of women; although 4 of our committee of 9 were women, there were only 2 other women present out of the cohort of 27 Institute scientists. Maybe this was unrepresentative, I’ve no idea, but the man across from me agreed that in his subject, by which I assume he meant physics, of course women were few and far between. Despite this, he seemed completely unable to see that I might think that was an issue. I made no headway with him at all and it perturbed me.
Later on in the meeting we were discussing the constitution of some committee and I mentioned that it would be important to have at least one woman on it. Consternation in the room. Why? asked the French woman from industry. Her reaction astonished me. I had always assumed that the fact that the ISC had a good proportion of women on it was due to a sensitivity to this issue in France just as much in the UK, but this reaction sounded as if it was not an intentional act to have nearly equal numbers of men and women on it (the actual numbers are 4/10, as one man was absent this year). At the final dinner – held in the opulent surroundings of the Pompadour Room at La Meurice, a Michelin 3* restaurant as a reward, I guess, for all our hard work – I talked to one of the (few) senior women at ESPCI about my unease about what I’d discovered. I had clearly struck a nerve. She felt very strongly that women collectively were not having an easy time in science in France these days, and that included herself. Indeed, she believed that things had gone backwards in recent years. Her generation, essentially the same as mine, had known they had to work hard to progress and had been willing to do so. She felt the present generation of young female scientists had much less drive and many simply wanted to stay at home rather than actively pursue a career. Whereas I have always felt that women who want to put home before family are to be supported not vilified, I nevertheless find it disturbing if this generation are collectively opting out. Is this societal pressures or genuine free choice? Is it because they can’t bear to keep on fighting or truly what they want to do? In other words, is this the leaky pipeline as I use the phrase, of women who are giving up the good fight because it’s too difficult for them to wish to keep battling, or is it simply that maternal instincts are getting stronger? So, let me ask, do readers believe there is a similar change in attitude in the UK, and that young women now are less willing to aspire to careers than a decade or two ago? Or is this something that is peculiar to France?