Cultural Differences?

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?

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5 Responses to Cultural Differences?

  1. Hi Athene,

    Thanks for the very interesting article, it sparked off many thoughts about my own experience in France. As a post-doc I spent 3 years in Germany and 2 years in France. Learning about the different cultures, including differences for women in science, was one of the most valuable lessons.

    Just like you, I had the impression since starting my PhD that France was “better” for women in SET, even as a PhD student I ran out of fingers to count senior, French, internationally renowned, women in my field (astrophysics). I only needed one hand for the UK. People called it the “Marie Curie effect” (a high-flying role model for girls/students). When I moved to France I was intrigued to find hardly any female French post-docs amongst my colleagues, whereas I knew 10’s of female astrophysics post-docs in the UK. Also hardly any female French PhD students. Partly the situation I encountered in France could be small number stats – there are very few post-docs in France, just like there are very few PhDs, and perhaps in my institute there was just a low point.

    As background, it’s worth pointing out that France is a much more matriarchal society than the anglo-saxon countries – senior women are everywhere, in politics (see the socialists), in business (l’oreal), in literature, arts, fashion design etc. Women are expected to do and, more importantly, expect to do as well as men. Yes, they run the households, but they also run their lives and their families’ lives. They don’t wait for their boyfriends to propose. Completely different from the UK; I loved living there partly for those reasons. Gender balance and glass ceilings are simply not issues you hear about, which is so refreshing (but see below for a more pessimistic view of why this might be).

    My experience in working in science in France might well not be representative, but my feeling is that France is loosing women in SET. I expect they don’t really know – there are laws to stop institutes counting minorities – a practical execution of the key french concept of egalité, but also a fantastic way of hiding some real problems in society. This might help explain the man’s dismissal of the problem at the dinner table, and the woman’s shock that you suggested it mattered how many women are on the board. Neither reaction surprises me one bit. If everyone is equal (as educated people strongly believe they _are_ in French society) then there are no problems of this sort. The French are possibly a little more idealistic than we are. Not pointing out the problem can be beneficial of course, you don’t end up with the self fulfilling prophecy which may be part of the problem here in the UK.

    If there really is a problem, why do I think it is happening? The French academic system is changing towards the anglo-saxon model. It used to be possible to stay in France for your whole academic life, or have a very short post-doc abroad following your PhD, before getting a permanent position well before you were 30. This position was yours, not your institutes – it could be moved if you moved, or more importantly if your partner moved. Possibly for the better, French post-docs are now expected to have international reputations before they are given their permanent position, as well as retaining strong ties with their home institute (returning home *every* year for the “concours” to show you will definitely come home when the panel lets you). The age for permanent positions is creeping up, French post-docs are spending more and more years abroad. And finally, research funding is becoming competitive. Previously researchers had just enough funds to do what they needed, now you need EU grants or ANRs.

    My guess is that a French female student looking at the prospect of an academic career in science, is looking at a 4 PhD (which is completely worthless outside of academia in France), many years of trekking around the world, something the French as a nationality are none too keen on, and the possibility of failure to get home at the end if she doesn’t play the game right. Being stranded outside of her country is something the Brits don’t worry about much, many are happy to abandon ship if necessary. And by that point she’ll likely be older than 30 – that key date when many of us want to be home, starting a family. Given the many other attractive alternatives to do well as a woman in France, no girl in her right mind is going to embark on a career in science!

    Obviously these are all my own opinions, based on a very limited experience, and completely unsupported by global facts and figures (which I can’t find, despite some hunting). I actually hope I’m wrong.

  2. Sarah says:

    If it’s the academic career path that puts them off, it might be interesting to contrast with the gender balance in industry-led research?

  3. Kat says:

    I think the choice to stay at home (or leave academia for a more family friendly career) is a pragmatic one for many women. Is it worth being absent from your child’s early years care to pursue a career that is likely doomed to failure? It’s becoming increasingly hard to achieve independence in academic science, which may mean that women no longer think its worth the effort., When I started pursuing my phd, I knew that I wanted to have children in my early thirties and that this was going to be hard work in combination with a scientific career. What I hoped, though, was that by this age I would be near enough to an independent position that it wouldn’t damage my career. Roll on 8 years and a big shortfall in funding and I am still stuck in a middling post doc, with little chance of becoming a pi (my career would probably have fared better if id moved abroad, but like many women, I was tied to the uk for personal reasons). Raising a small child when you are looking for a new job every 3 years is not a position I thought I would be in, but here I am, and its not fun. In all honesty, I would not recommend that any young woman thinking about a family should enter a career in academic science UNLESS their partner earns a significant amount of money (so short term contracts aren’t a worry and they can afford help at home) or they’re happy to wait for kids until they’re in their late thirties. Academia is poorly paid (considering the qualifications needed), unpredictable, time consuming and ultimately unlikely to lead to a permanent position! Cut and run kids, cut and run.

    • Thanks Kat. There is a third option that is getting commoner, though it is still a comparative rarity: the partner who is willing to put their own career on hold/has a job that enables them to work from home (eg freelance journalist) / can work very flexibly to complement one’s own working pattern. Changes in UK paternity leave regulations may facilitate this as an option. Childcare should not be seen as the mother’s ‘problem’, but as the family’s problem. It should also be borne in mind that part-time working does not preclude progression, although people sometimes assume it will. Nevertheless, the increasing age at which permanent appointments are made, in both the UK and France, undoubtedly is contributing to the complicated equations individuals and families have to solve.

  4. kat (@fishscientist) says:

    I agree Athene, and I am lucky enough to have a husband who, when he is able to (he is in a training position at the moment, but when that finishes), has offered to go part time so that I dont have to. The main problem with that though, is that, again, unless your partner earns a lot of money or you were fortunate enough to buy a house before the housing boom, you barely earn enough as a postdoc to support a family. Also, you are never quite sure how long you’re employment is going to last. In fact, more than the long hours culture, its the financial instability of a scientific career that is particularly off putting. If I knew that, were I unable to scale the heights as a PI, I could still work long term as a post doc, making enough money to get by, I’d happily stick it out. However, if you do 7-8 years post doccing and then dont make it to PI position, you’re effectively on the scrap heap (and you’ve most likely gone past the stage where you would be desirable to other industries). This is a very scary proposition in the current economic climate.

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