Women in Big Science: opportunities and challenges in breaking the glass ceiling

Top row (L-R): Sophie Lemaire, Westinghouse; Louise Carvalho, CERN; Francesca Primas, ESO; Elizabeth Pollitzer, Portia; Jill Partington, Assystem; Mina Stareva, European Commission.

This was a first-of-a-kind webinar in the short history of the Big Science Business Forum (BSBF), shifting its focus from procurement to people, and more specifically to women. For many this was a pilot to test the waters, explore whether the BSBF crowd is interested in such topics. The record-breaking number of registrations and attendance suggest that there is a public and an appetite to discuss openly this subject. Prepared by a working group, formed on a voluntary basis in F4E, and with the support received by CDTI, this was a webinar building on collaboration, momentum, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

Scheduled on Friday, 11 February, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a panel of speakers from the European Commission, CERN, ESO, IAEA, Westinghouse, Assystem, EMBL, Ferrovial, debated stereotypes, discussed strategies to fight inequality in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and exchanged ideas on how to promote gender equality in the work environment.

With the skillful moderation of Elizabeth Pollitzer, Portia, the pace of conversation and the rich exchange guided us from a micro-level analysis to the big picture. Mina Stareva, European Commission, mentioned the rigorous monitoring through the She Figures, and explained some of the persistent challenges in improving gender equality in science. Although at PhD level there is a 50-50 split between men and women, the picture changes significantly when it comes to STEM, dropping to a 30%, and even lower in senior managerial roles. The European Commission is adamant about changing the state of play and Gender Equality plans are now required for recipients of public funds in the field of research and innovation. Louise Carvalho, CERN, explained us how her organisation, often referred to as embodiment of Big Science, addresses this question. A positive tone in the conversation, endorsement by top management and the application of plans specific to the needs of different Departments hold the key to success. Unleashing the potential of staff was one of the points raised by Francesca Primas, ESO, who elaborated on sustaining motivation, growth and career development. Sehila Gonzalez de Vicente, explained how IAEA has been ensuring more female representation in panels, introduced schemes of mentoring, and how Marie Sklowdoska-Curie fellowships brought more young female researchers on board. For Roshni Mooneeram, EMBL, it’s all a matter of putting inclusion at the centre of the policies we design in recruitment, leadership or culture.

The response of industry to the wave of change during the last decade was analysed by Sophie Lemaire, Westinghouse. A gradual transformation was initiated through cultural transformation, the creation of networks, and the need to recognise diversity as an asset in the marketplace. The search for more and diverse talent motivated Assystem to invest in outreach activities in order to inspire young students to pursue a career in STEM. Through the “Incredible Women” programme, with an investment reaching 5 million EUR, various schemes have been put into place to motivate young girls to embark on this scientific journey. Opportunity and an environment friendly to women are key to increasing participation and overcoming barriers, explained Chelsea Russo, Ferrovial.

The second part of the webinar addressed the question of a new award in the field of gender equality transformation in Big Science, which will be launched later in the year. A round table discussion and an award ceremony are planned to take place in BSBF2022 in Granada, 4-7 October 2022. During that week, the eleven most prominent Big Science research facilities in the areas of astrophysics, space, synchrotrons and high-energy accelerators, and fusion, will be present in Granada for the second edition of this forum , to present to industry their procurement plans for the period 2022-2026 worth more than 37 billion EUR.

To view the Women in Science webinar, click here.