The path to science is steeper for women

Some of the SET-Routes ambassadors, who set out to encourage more girls and women to study science and help them in their careers, met up at CERN to exchange their ideas.

An Insight Lecture given by Sabine Hentze, a human genetics specialist, at a conference organised for a young audience at EMBL in September 2008.

A talk by Angela Berkesi, one of the SET-Routes ambassadors, in a school in Hungary.

Solveig, Manuela, Angela, Fay and Mirana are of different nationalities and work in different fields but they all have one thing in common: they are all young women scientists who have taken part in the SET-Routes programme over the last two years as "ambassadors", visiting schools and universities in their own countries to share their passion for science with students. On 23 and 24 April, twenty or so of these ambassadors rounded off the project by coming to CERN to talk about their experience of it and share their ideas. The SET-Routes programme (which encourages women to pursue careers in Science, Engineering and Technology) was launched by EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory), EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization) and CERN (Education group) in 2007 with a view to encouraging young women to pursue studies and careers in science. Funded by the European Commission, the project involved the creation of a network of both young and experienced female scientists to act as school and university ambassadors in around twenty European countries. In this framework, about a hundred female scientists, engineers and technicians have visited schools and universities to talk about what they do and convey their enthusiasm for their professions.

Despite an increase in the number of women in scientific professions, they are still significantly in the minority and this is increasingly true the higher up the career ladder you go. "In France, women account for 55% of school leavers passing the scientific and technical baccalaureates but represent only 25% of those taking the "classes préparatoires" for entrance to the science-oriented "grandes écoles" and only 17% of engineers", says Yvette Ramos of the French Association for Women Engineers, who gave a lecture at the final SET-Routes session. And this under-representation of women in science is by no means confined to France but affects the whole of Europe. Over half of students in Europe are women, but women hold only 15% of senior university posts. This gender imbalance is hard to combat for many reasons, first and foremost among which are social stereotypes. Comments like "Women should stay at home and look after their children" and "Boys are better at science" are far from uncommon, and prejudices like these can cause women to curb their ambitions.

It was precisely to challenge preconceptions like these that the SET-Routes ambassadors went out into the schools and universities. Angela Bekesi, a young molecular biologist from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is a dynamic SET-Routes ambassador who has visited six different schools in Hungary.

"I was amazed to discover the preconceived ideas students had about what scientists do. But by talking about my profession and doing some simple experiments with them, I managed to get them interested.

One of the girls even came to my laboratory for a period of work experience, which transformed her ideas about the possibilities that were open to her", says Angela. Manuela Cirilli, a physicist with the ATLAS collaboration, visited three Italian schools. "During my visits I noticed that 13- and 14-year old girls ask just as many questions as boys but that at 18 they don’t ask questions any more", she says. "Girls seem to be influenced by Italian society, especially by the television, which portrays women as objects with no interest in "Geek" subjects like science. It’s therefore important to show them that there is nothing strange about being a woman and a physicist and that women physicists can be just as "trendy" as other women".

As well as these school and university visits and a number of conference debates held at a dozen universities, SET-Routes organised a series of "Insight Lectures" in which women scientists talked to young audiences about how they came to work in the field and what they have discovered.

SET-Routes is coming to an end but the concept will live on. "We have had some very positive feedback from the ambassadors and students alike and therefore intend to continue in the same vein", says Julia Willingale-Theune, the SET-Routes programme coordinator. "We have already set up similar activities at EMBL. I think it’s important to go out and meet students to make them aware of the opportunities that are open to them."

For further information:

The SET-Routes website

SET-Routes article published in the Bulletin in 2007

European Platform of Women Scientists

The Italian women from the LHC

On 16 April a delegation of female Italian researchers who worked on the LHC and its experiments were met by the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, at the inauguration of the new exhibition "Donne alla guida della più grande macchina mai costruita dall’uomo (The women who run the largest machine ever built by man)". The photos in the exhibition were taken by Mike Struik, an engineer from the TE-MSC Group.

Website of the exhibition