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Research Luxembourg: women & girls in science

11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. How does public research in Luxembourg measure up in terms of gender balance? What is being done to support and inspire a new generation of women in science?

It is hard to get around the word ‘inequality’ when speaking about women in science. In Luxembourg, a general trend in academia is reflected: the gender balance is nearly there in the beginning of the career, then the scales shift dramatically, and the proportion of women decreases on each career level.

According to the latest SHE figures, [2018, published by European Commission], Luxembourg ranks below EU average in the number of female PhD graduates at 40.2% (EU average: 47.9%). As we move up the ranks, the female representation dwindles further: women make up just over 34% of Associate Professor-level academic staff. Cut this number in half to 17.7% and we have the proportion of women at Full Professor level (EU average: 23.7%). The SHE figures report highlights that it is more difficult for women in most countries to climb the academic ranks, and that significantly fewer women achieve Full Professor status during their career than their male peers. The reasons are manifold, and it is undeniable that many things need to change to even out these numbers.

In addition to being underrepresented in numbers – or because of this – it is common for female scientists to experience bias in their career: having to prove themselves more and to work harder to secure the same opportunities as their male peers, being disproportionately assigned teaching, feeling “left out” after becoming a parent. In fields where women are the clear minority – such as engineering, maths, ICT and material sciences, this tends to ring particularly true. On this topic, discover the FNR series “Science has no gender“.

Supported by an FNR PSP-Classic grant, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) researcher Carole Blond-Hanten educates children and young people on gender stereotypes in a scientifically sound way with the help of a board game.

What is being done: time to force a change

To tackle the inequality on a large level, the EU Commission has announced an equality plan for the Horizon Europe programme (successor to Horizon 2020): every public body, research center or higher education institution must have an equality plan in place to access the Framework Programme: no plan, no funding.

The European Research Council (ERC) has had a Gender Equality Plan in place since 2013, and Science Europe has a practical guide for its member organisations in addressing gender inequality.

Eye on Luxembourg: progress is coming

Luxembourg also wants to address gender inequality in research: fostering gender balance, diversity and inclusion is a long, multi-faceted process, but it has begun:

  • The National Gender Working Group (WG) in Public Research brings together representatives from all four Luxembourg public research institutions as well as the FNR. The four areas of focus: “Gender data monitoring”, “Gender diversity survey”, as well as “Best practices for the recruitment processes”, and “Best practices for internal promotion processes”.
  • The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) has launched an initiative focussing on diversity and inclusion. Sabina Quijano from LIST and member of the WG works on the project and explains the tasks ahead include the creation of a D&I roadmap, the development and implementation of a gender equality plan, the development of measures to be able to offer more inclusive jobs, and sensitisation and training of employees on special topics, such as unconscious bias, or intercultural communication.
  • The FNR has gender balance requirements in place for its funding programmes RESCOM (speaker balance) and ATTRACT (gender parity in the applications submitted per institution).
  • Luxembourg’s Ministry for Equality runs the “Actions Positives” programme, which together with employers and employees supports an inclusive economy and an equal society. The voluntary programme supports companies in having their good practices in the workplace certified.

Supporting girls in[to] science

The trend of female under-representation, especially in STEM subjects, starts many years before, in school. Luxembourg boasts a wide range of initiatives and outreach activities to make it possible for young people to follow their passion for science, as well as initiatives specifically encouraging girls to get into the traditionally male dominated subjects, such as ICT.

The FNR supports many of these important efforts through its Promoting Science to the Public programmes PSP-Classic and PSP-Flagship, such as:

The Fondation Jeunes Scientifiques Luxembourg (FJSL) promotes natural and social sciences among young people in Luxembourg and provides a platform where they can exhibit their own scientific projects, participate in cultural exchanges and win prestigious awards.

Marking the 50th edition in 2021, the FJSL for example since 1971 (!) organises the annual “Jonk Fuerscher”, a competition for young scientists in Luxembourg.

Winners can subsequently take part in international competitions, such as the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS). Participants from Luxembourg have already won ten prizes at the EUCYS for the Grand Duchy.

Student Camilla Hurst, for example, submitted a project in 2017 on the role of surface materials in the transmission of germs in schools. In a project with LIST, she was able to show in her analyses that door handles are transmission sites for potentially dangerous germs and that raw pine wood has an antibacterial effect. After winning in Luxembourg – which Camilla Hurst has done no less than three times since 2015 – she presented her findings at the International Science and Engineering Fair 2017 in Los Angeles. She came fourth at this largest pre-university research competition in the world. Camilla has now graduated high school in Luxembourg and studies at the University of Oxford.

The Scienteens Lab – De Labo fir Jonker – is the first research lab for high-school students in Luxembourg. It is an extracurricular learning centre of the University of Luxembourg that offers workshops designed to spark their interest in science, show them the latest trends and technologies in research and supports them in their career choice.

Hands-on experiments, supervised by experienced scientists and teachers from various disciplines, provide the students an insight into scientific research and the day-to-day work in the lab. The workshops address relevant topics in biology, mathematics and physics. Find out more in our video from when Elisabeth John won an FNR Award for the Scienteens Lab in 2015.

The organisation Women in Digital Empowerment (WIDE) has received FNR support for initiatives such as Girls in ICT, which aims to empower and encourages girls and young women to consider careers in the growing field of ICTs, ultimately enabling both girls and technology companies to reap the benefits of greater female participation in the ICT sector.

Promoting science

The FNR’s Chercheurs à l’école sees researchers visit high schools to talk about their research and life as a scientist. Going for around a decade, this activity gives female scientists the chance to interact directly with girls and normalises the concept of a female scientist – though fewer now than before, many kids still associate men more than women with the word ‘scientist’.

The events Science Festival and Researchers’ Days mainly serve to let children and teenagers experience science hands-on, instilling a sense of curiosity, a must for any scientist to be.

Celebrating women and girls in science

Despite the under-representation, there are women in all areas of research in Luxembourg whose contributions to science and whose efforts to push the boundaries of knowledge in their field have played a vital role in the significant development of research in Luxembourg. Discover some of these contributions and efforts in our video.

Stories featuring women in science

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