Women, research and universities: Pursuing excellence in research without loss of talent

10 July 2012

Not enough women opt for a career in research and too many drop out as they advance in an academic career. LERU universities view this as a loss of talent in the workplace, a loss of diversity in society and a loss for universities’ pursuit of excellent research and new knowledge creation. The League of European Research Universities (LERU) is releasing a paper today with a commitment and with recommendations on what universities and others can do to make research careers attractive – for women and for men.

Academia in Europe is still losing a considerable amount of its female research capacity. From the PhD (45% females) onwards, women drop out of an academic research career at successive turns and for various reasons. Only 13% of heads of higher education institutions in Europe are women. Not unlike in other sectors, the system also suffers from subtle, often unconscious bias in promotion and other decisive situations. Positive changes are happening, but can be slow and vary according to country, research field and other factors.

There is abundant evidence to document these challenges and the LERU paper therefore does not dwell on them. Instead it aims to stimulate change, proposing action areas for universities and sharing innovative good practice about what LERU universities are doing to attract and support women in research careers.

Importantly, LERU universities commit themselves to undertake action:

  • to promote gender diversity among their academic staff with strong leadership, in conformity with institutional, national and other regulatory frameworks and in partnership with the LERU universities.
  • to develop or continue to implement Gender Equality Strategies and/or Action Plans, to share them and to jointly monitor their development and implementation.
  • to engage with EU policy makers, funders and other actors to promote the cause of gender equality at universities.

How can universities focus their actions to achieve structural change?

  • Show leadership, vision and strategy: commit at the top and throughout the institution to gender equality.
  • Develop or implement a Gender Strategy (or Action Plan) with the support of all divisions and levels within the university. It can be embedded in a broader Equality Strategy and should be managed professionally, for instance through a dedicated structure such as a Gender Equality Office.
  • Aim to ensure sufficient funding for all gender equality activity. Funding structures should enable long-term planning of gender equality activity to achieve structural change.
  • Select the right mix of gender-specific career development measures and gender-neutral work-life balance measures.
  • Pay attention to transparency, accountability and monitoring to ensure successful implementation and improvement where needed.
  • Promote and support a gender dimension in how research is designed and carried out, taking into account the specificities of particular research fields.

Which mix of actions universities take depends on their own strategies and on national or other gender and diversity agendas. Since these vary widely across Europe, it is impossible to have identical goals or measures across all universities, even within such a similar group as LERU universities. One-size-fits-all solutions are in most cases inappropriate and unlikely to be successful. Moreover, since universities’ actions are in many cases regulated or influenced by other factors, it is clear that our recommendations have implications for other actors such as EU policy makers, funders, governments and publishers. These are also discussed in the paper.

Download the paper


For questions about the report or about LERU or to arrange an interview with a LERU representative in your country, contact Dr. Katrien Maes, Chief Policy Officer, tel BE +32 16 32 09 04, Mob. +32 (0)473 97 70 14 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).