Quality of research benefits from more even male-female balance
‘Greater diversity would raise the quality of research.' Leiden University Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk took part in the first European conference on women in science, on 8 and 9 November in Brussels. 'There are two aspects to this issue: female scientists and female participation in health studies,' comments Buitendijk.
Every year, more women than men die of cardio-vascular diseases. The symptoms of heart disease in women are different from those in men. However, most research into cardiovascular disease is carried out on men. Consequently, little is known about what causes these differences. The researchers - often male - seem not to consider the female perspective. Studies have shown that a more even distribution of males and females in the studies would broaden the perspective and the expertise, and would thereby strengthen innovation in scientific knowledge.
The low number of female researchers compared to male counterparts is common across the whole breadth of the natural sciences research. Studies on the balance between female and male researchers shows that the Netherlands is lagging behind. To give an example: in the most recent survey, dating from 2009, only 11 per cent of Dutch university professors were women, while the European average was 19 per cent. Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk states quite plainly that the imbalance between men and women in scientific research is a societal problem: 'Not only are we wasting female talent and investments in higher education, the quality of the research carried out also suffers.'
Strengthening science was precisely the theme of the first European conference on Gender in Science. For two days Brussels was a European hotspot of policy-makers, collaborative organisations (such as the European Cooperation in Science and Technology: COST), representatives from industry (TNO, Unilever), universities, providers of subsidies (NWO, European Research Council) and prominent scientific journals (Nature, The Lancet, PLoS Medicine). The participants used the plenary meetings and parallel working groups, poster presentations and personal contacts to exchange knowledge and experience.
‘For the first time ever, all top players in the area of European research came together. Sharing expertise gives us all the opportunity to move a step further,' comments Buitendijk. She herself made an active contribution to the conference with a presentation on the possible origins of the under-representation of women. She also headed a parallel session on the question of how scientific journals can be encouraged to pay more attention to the importance of gendered science and on the scientific issue of whether the review process is gender neutral.
In Buitendijk's opinion, Leiden, too, has to take a broader perspective, including in policy-making. 'The problems of sub-groups with too little prestige - such as women at the top of the scientific field and minorities within the university in general - have a lot in common. This is why I want to combine the Talent to the Top charter and our Diversity project. I believe we can achieve greater synergy if we bundle our expertise.'