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Inclusion and equality in research and innovation is the only way forward

28 February 2022

Professors Margareth Hagen, Pilar Aranda Ramírez, Cisca Wijmenga, Hester Bijl, Daniela Mapelli, Milena Králíčková, Linda Doyle, Anne Fraïsse and Virginie Laval, respectively Rectors of the Universities of Bergen, Granada, Groningen, Leiden, Padova and Charles in Prague, Provost of Trinity College Dublin and Presidents of the Universities of Paul-Valery Montpellier 3 and Poitiers

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize in 1903, and she is among the extremely few who have achieved the distinction of becoming a double Nobel prize winner. Her story is an example, remarkable for her time, of social mobility – from governess to Nobel Prize Laureate – but also a demonstration of scientific success brought about by a combination of extraordinary intellect, hard work, and curiosity. She has been, and still is, an inspiration for women all over the world, both inside and outside of academia.

The achievements of Marie Skłodowska-Curie are a striking demonstration that a lack of inclusion and equal opportunity in research and innovation is unjust and a waste of human resources. It is therefore a paradox that we still struggle with achieving gender parity in our research and innovation systems. Although the situation is improving at the level of doctoral graduates in Europe as a whole, where the EU She Figures 2021 reports that there is almost gender parity, the numbers are much lower in the STEM fields, and in all fields the proportion of women gets lower the higher you climb the career ladder.  

We risk losing talented researchers and research leaders, we risk losing great research, and we need to uncover what the main obstacles for gender equality in research are. The causes are no doubt complex, and various cultural and structural factors play a role. It is positive that the Horizon Europe programme raises awareness of such factors by the requirement of a Gender Equality Plan at participating institutions, but is this sufficient?

We need to make research careers attractive and compatible with a good work-life balance also for women; only in this way will we make it possible for everyone, regardless of gender and background, to fulfil their potential and contribute to the research and innovation we need to meet the societal challenges we all are facing.

To succeed in this task a broad cooperation between several actors in the research and innovation system is needed. We welcome the initiative taken by the European Commission to reform how researchers are assessed. We hope the Commission will include a gender-sensitive perspective in this work.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie reportedly stated that she was taught that progress is neither swift nor easy, and one might think she was all too right regarding gender equality. Although it is frustrating that positive change comes slowly, we should, however, notice that our efforts also are successful; there has been improvement since 2016 in Europe with regard both to the proportion of women in positions at the highest level in academia and to the proportion of women among heads of institutions. In addition, in 2021 The European Innovation Council celebrated a ten-year anniversary for the EU Prize for Women Innovators with a record high number of 264 applications coming in from 35 countries. The prize was established to raise awareness of the need for more women entrepreneurs in Europe, and to encourage women to take the lead as role models for other innovators. We know for a fact that game changing innovations need diversity in perspectives. The responsibility lies on our universities to create incentives for research driven innovation which is inclusive and encouraging in particular for female researchers.

We are ourselves representatives of this development; most of us are the first female rector or president at our distinguished research and teaching institutions. We therefore wish to encourage everyone to engage in a renewed effort to promote inclusion and gender equality in higher education, research, and innovation and we wish all of you a Happy International Women’s Day on March 8th.

Sadly the world changed dramatically since this editorial was prepared. We utterly condemn the military invasion of Ukraine and stand in deep solidarity with the Ukrainian people and all who are impacted. Our individual institutions are currently organizing themselves to provide assistance and support to those in need as well as exploring already ways to prepare for longer-term consequences of the war.