Levelling the European Playing Field

One of the good things about (certain) committees is that one learns so much. That may not be everyone’s experience but over the years I personally have found many committees – though most certainly not all – very educational. I learnt a lot of the biology that I hadn’t had any occasion to use personally in my own research through chairing BBSRC Committees. I appreciate that is possibly a comment that retrospectively will not inspire confidence in my chairing abilities. Nevertheless, I do feel joining the right sort of committees, allowing one to expand one’s horizons can only be a good thing. This week it was the turn of the ERC’s Working Group on Gender Balance *(a sub-group of the Scientific Council) that I found illuminating as, I hope, others around the table equally did too.

We are a group all committed to trying to create a funding environment that is as level as we can make it for both men and women. As yet things within the ERC would appear not to have reached this happy position despite everyone’s best efforts, as I wrote about before. The statistics show that overall women applicants have lower success rates than men in practically all parts of the disciplinary landscape. What is going wrong (which it must be unless you actually believe women on average are more stupid than men)? What can be done to improve the situation?

A study is currently being carried out on behalf of the ERC to look at some aspects of this question. During the discussion this week it became clear how many of the things each of us ‘knew’ might in fact only apply in limited circumstances. For instance, I have always thought that the issue of the style of CV writing was quite often a gendered issue, along the lines of women being less assertive – or immodest if you prefer. This is the reason my own University runs CV mentoring to help women not only ensure they are applying for promotion at the right time, but also that they are giving themselves the best chance to do so by the way they present themselves in their CV’s.

However it turns out this problem is of broader importance. I learned that this assertive style of writing is commoner in the Anglo-US world than elsewhere. When it comes to judging track records based on CV’s, it seems that some parts of Europe may fare better than others. Another working group, although one on which I don’t serve, looks at widening participation issues but it is no secret that the UK fares considerably better than many of the newer EU members. For instance, as I’ve written before (based  on 2012 figures so they may not still be quite the same) the University of Cambridge, with 95 grants, hosts rather more than the whole of Ireland, Portugal, Poland and the Czech Republic combined. Some countries may have no awards at all under a particular call. Although it is clear some of these have less well-developed infrastructures than countries such as the UK or Germany, are their applicants also being affected by a more modest tradition of writing their CVs? It’s an interesting question that I hadn’t come across before.

When it comes to maternity leave, the ERC rules state that the effective elapsed time since the award of the first PhD can be reduced by 18 months for each child, rendering an applicant eligible for a Starter or a Consolidator grant for a longer chronological time. (Paternity leave is accounted for only by the amount of time actually spent on leave.)  This can seem quite generous since in many countries this far exceeds the statutory time that can be spent on leave and so would seem to be taking into account some of the additional limitations to one’s working life that are often introduced by small children. However, what happens if – as I would expect would be a not terribly uncommon working pattern in the UK, for instance – a woman takes 6 months maternity leave and then comes back part-time for some years. She still gets the ‘credit’ of 18 months, but her part-time working life is not factored in at all. But, someone asked, who would work like that and why? In their culture this seemed to be an unimaginable mode of working and yet I know people who work less than 100% for many years because that is the pattern that makes sense for them. So this is an example of something that may look like generosity in one part of Europe but appear to be less than satisfactory in another. I hope this is something that can be looked at in more detail in the future although any allowance scheme would need to ensure it didn’t merely become a bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork proof.

A final point about maternity leave is something that echoes issues in Cambridge.  Should one declare a period of maternity leave or not? Just as I have heard it expressed in the past that women applying for promotion locally have been (badly in my view) advised to suppress the fact that they had had time out for a child –thereby rendering any apparent gap in the production of papers or the award of grants mysterious and suspect – so it seems from the evidence currently being gathered through inter views etc, that some ERC applicants feel that there is a question mark over whether they will be disadvantaged by mentioning the fact they have become parents. This is troubling and the ERC will need to do all it can to promote the message that there is no ‘stigma’ attached to having a family. Here I suspect Scandinavian attitudes are probably very different on this point to those in other parts of the EU, but it is important that all hear the same reassuring message.

The ERC Gender Balance Working Group undoubtedly has an important task ahead to do all it can to make sure that neither country of origin nor gender are inherent disadvantages to applicants wanting to obtain funding. Work remains to be done (and of course there are other issues too, including ensuring the panels themselves always operate to the highest standards), but there is clearly the appetite to get things as right as possible.

*24-10-13 The link to the Gender Balance Working Group has just been added to the ERC’s Organisation pages, along with those for other working groups, and has now been inserted on this post.

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2 Responses to Levelling the European Playing Field

  1. Juliet Coates says:

    Thank you for raising the issue of long-term part-time working. I am meeting more and more female academics who do, in fact, do this. I think that some kind of metrics that take this into account are a good idea, as even if declared on a CV it can easily get overlooked as people look for information about publications and grants.

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