Gender equality in human resources for research and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions

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Tags: MSCA | Gender equality

Gender equality or gender gap? About the ‘leaky pipeline’ and efforts to mitigate it in Europe

The evolution of careers of women in higher education and research has been described by numerous experts and by a wealth of studies as a ‘Leaky pipeline’.

Gender equality EU 1999-2013

Figure 1. Proportion of women and men in a typical academic career, students and academic staff, EU-28, 1999-2003-2007-2013.

Source: Women in Science database, DG Research and Innovation and Eurostat – Education Statistics


Surveys and studies show indeed that we are still far from an even approximative gender equality in studies and employment in research, as proved with Figure 1.

Gender equality has been one of the priorities of a “Reinforced European Research Area Partnership for Excellence and Growth” (ERA) since 2012. To this end, Member States are invited to remove barriers to the recruitment, retention and career progression of female researchers.

Gender-NET is the first European Research Area Network (ERA-NET) to be dedicated to the promotion of gender equality through structural change in research institutions.

In Horizon 2020, gender is a cross-cutting issue and is mainstreamed in each of the different parts of the Work Programme, ensuring a more integrated approach to research and innovation.

More detailed information in our 2016 International Women’s Day Special Issue


Figure 1 perfectly illustrates the concept of the leaky pipeline: while women seem to represent more than half of the students enrolled and graduating from tertiary education in EU-28 (with even a slight increase between 1999 and 2003, since then sustained), the figures are reversed as soon as one looks at students in higher education, and ratios worsen continuously above that level.

If one only refers to the most recent data set (2013), although the numbers for university students and graduates are somewhat similar, a tendency is shown from post-doctoral employment to executive level that women are less and less well-represented, from 45% at post-doctoral level to just 21% at the executive/professor level. That is, although almost one in two researchers are women at the postdoctoral level, the ratio falls to only one to five at the most senior level.

This under-representation of women at mid-career and senior levels can be tackled though, as is shown by the substantial evolution of approximately +10% on all categories from University graduates to senior positions from 199 to 2013. Recent efforts in the EU Research and Innovation Policies have contributed to mitigate this gender gap (see sidenote).


Gender equality international mobility

Figure 2. Sex differences in international mobility in post‑PhD careers, per country, 2012, calculated by subtracting the share (%) of internationally mobile women researchers (out of the total number of women researchers) from the share (%) of internationally mobile men researchers (out of the total number of men researchers). A positive value indicates that men are more mobile, and a negative value indicates that women are more mobile.

Source: MORE 2 Survey; and European Commission, SHE FIGURES 2015, Gender in Research and Innovation, doi:10.2777/744106, p.107


This discrepancy is shown to be reconducted when focusing on a population of researchers that is of a particular interest to us at EURAXESS: that of the internationally mobile, post-PhD (or experienced) researchers.

Figure 2 proposes an insight on the ration of men to women within internationally mobile researchers. Although it is limited in range to European countries, it does include researchers at all (post-PhD) career stages and in all fields of science, defining ‘Internationally mobile’ researchers as those who have worked abroad for three months or more at least once in the last decade. Therefore, one can estimate it draws a realistic representation of the gender ratio among mobile researchers. What is striking is that more than half of the suveyed countries (16 including EU-28) feature a gender gap superior to 5% in favour of men within their mobile researchers, while only one, the FYRo Macedonia, shows a geneder gap in favour of women of more than 5%. None of the major countries in terms of numbers of their research workforce  performs well on that indicator, with for example Germany at +20.2%, France at +10%, or Spain at +6.8%.

However once again, there are initiatives to tackle that specific issue, such as the policies and initiatives on gender equality towards experienced (potentially) mobile researchers within the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowships (IF) programme.


Gender equality initiatives in the MSCA programmes

In 2005, the European Commission adopted a European Charter for Researchers and a Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers.

On gender balance, they recommend:

"Employers and/or funders should aim for a representative gender balance at all levels of staff,  including  at supervisory and  managerial level. [..] To  ensure  equal treatment, selection  and  evaluation  committees should  have  an  adequate  gender balance."

Read more about the Charter & Code


Since their creation, the MSCA have placed a strong emphasis on promoting gender and equal opportunities for their fellows, and within their projects. Indeed, the MSCA require transparent recruitment and high quality employment and working conditions for researchers, in line with the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers (see sidenote). In addition, MSCA grants permit part-time working and parental leave. Post-doctoral researchers who wish to resume their career after a break, for example to raise children, can apply to a dedicated panel of the MSCA Individual Fellowships.

Gender proportion MSCA IF 2016 call

Figure 3. Proportion in total numbers and percentages of women (left) and men (right) within total applicants (outer circle) and A-list individuals (inner circle) for the 2016 call of the MSCA Individual Fellowship programme.


As a result, MSCA are widely regarded as best practice in promoting gender balance: nearly 40% of MSCA fellows are women, a share significantly higher than in other parts of H2020, as shows Figure 3 which focuses on the gender breakdown within applicants and grantees for the MSCA IF 2016 call.

In the 2016 Individual Fellowship call, women represented only 39 % of the applicants, however they were 43% of the selected fellows, which shows that they have a higher success rate than men.

In line with Horizon 2020 commitments, the MSCA promote gender equality at several levels:

  • For evaluation of proposals: evaluators receive training on unconscious gender bias;
  • For human resources: equal opportunities are ensured in MSCA projects, both at the level of supported researchers and in project supervision;
  • In decision making: The MSCA Advisory Group has more women than men.
  • In the research itself: projects integrating the gender dimension in their research and innovation content, when relevant, have more chances to succeed (https://youtu.be/Hq4eWo30RfY)

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and only a few years ater the 100th anniversary of her Nobel Prize in chemistry, which spawned a very interesting compendium of publications on gender equality in science, education and research, we hope that such measures will further contribute to reducing the gender gap that still exsits as of today.

The EU celebrated on 7 March the fact that one hundred thousand fellows were supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions since its launch 20 years ago. To mark this milestone, 30 highly promising researchers have been selected to showcase the EU's actions dedicated to excellence and worldwide mobility in research. 18 of the group of 30 high-calibre researchers are women!

More information: European Commission

Science Europe, ‘Practical Guide to improving Gender equality in research organisations’, 2017 doi: d/2017/13.324/2
European Commission, ‘Women in Science and technology’, 2009 doi: 10.2777/57428
European Commission, SHE FIGURES 2015, Gender in Research and Innovation, doi:10.2777/744106
M.H. Chiu, P.J. Gilmer, D.F. Treagust, ‘Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry’, Sense Publishers, 2011, doi: 10.1007/978-94-6091-719-6