Meeting with EPWS, September 2017

2 May 2018

Over many years, WiPG was represented by Ann Marks within EPWS – the European Platform for Women in Science.

Now Heather Williams has taken on this role, and reports back from her first EPWS meeting in Brussels.

‘Manchester to London to Brussels. All by train. In a day. Such was the notably civilised start to my two-day trip to join EPWS for their annual meeting. We convened in a meeting room next to the dinosaurs in Brussels’ Natural History Museum – 24 members from 12 different nations, representing 19 of the 33 organisations within EPWS who work to improve female representation in science across Europe. 2 hours of fascinating discussion followed, covering the organisation of the network and the many projects it is involved with including conferences, consulting on policy for various organisations, participating in EU-wide research projects and raising the profile of Women in STEM across Europe. We also voted in the board of administration, and most notably, Claudine Hermann (former vice-President) as the new President. As she accepted the post, she surveyed the challenges ahead, saying “There is no need to repeat that women and men are equal in their talents, but not in their opportunities”. I could not agree more.

Then we adjourned for dinner. I discovered that whilst the official language of the meeting was English, the unofficial language was certainly French! I contributed a lot of gesticulating and “oui”, and not a lot else. I certainly need to work on my conversational French before our next meeting.

The following day, those of us from EU nations reconvened at the European Parliament for a debate discussing progress in gender equality in STEM within the member states. The topics discussed were all too familiar – positive messaging about STEM in schools for boys and girls; effective maternity, paternity and flexible working policies; the conflict between pursuing professional careers and cultural expectations of women as homemakers, wives and mothers; the role of implicit bias and outright discrimination - all culminating in losing women from STEM workforce and poor representation at the top of the many scientific professions. It was also noted that work towards equality was increasingly difficult in a climate of growing nationalism, racism and homophobia across Europe, with many women facing intersectional discrimination. However, I was encouraged by the unified voice calling for gender equality in the sciences across Europe, and stories of projects that have led to genuine culture change . The European Union is also consulting on whether targets and quotas are useful tools in redressing gender imbalance, trying to build consensus on whether to pursue a controversial and potentially divisive approach.

I left for the UK shortly after the debate, but the experience of working alongside such erudite, clear-sighted and intelligent women was genuinely inspirational.  It was certainly a bittersweet experience to be embraced by a pan-European network working on gender equality in STEM as the UK embarked on Brexit negotiations. 6 months on, the UK still seems intent on leaving the EU, and I can’t help but think of all that will be lost in doing so. We will still remain members of EPWS post-Brexit, but we will no longer be at the centre of what they do, and neither will we be able to take part in debates about further progress on these issues within the European Parliament.’

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