Gender equal teams do better science

Policy-makers, industry leaders and researchers debated the future of gender and innovation at the first European Gender Summit which took place in Brussels on the 8th and 9th of November 2011.

In response to the EC Green Paper “From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards a Common, Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation Funding”, genSET, supported by the European Science Foundation, launched a complementary consultation – the Public Consultation on the Future of Gender and Innovation in Europe.

The three interlinked platforms – the public consultation, the European Gender Summit and the policy manifesto – are bringing important evidence and understanding of how Europe can benefit from more effective main-streaming of the gender dimension in research, innovation and in the scientific systems. The result will provide additional input in the shaping of Horizon 2020.

Interdisciplinary research can change gender structures

Professor Teresa Rees (© ESF – Benita Lipps)

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Dr Maria Elżbieta Orłowska, Secretary of State of the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Isabelle Esser from Unilever and Raymond Seltz, Secretary General of Euroscience were some of the high-level policy-makers, industry leaders and researchers at the summit. Noticeably, there were more women than men present at the summit, which Dr. Orlowska commented on, urging for more male participation. Gender equality is not a women’s issue – both genders are concerned. Professor Teresa Rees from Cardiff University, is one of the leading experts within the genSET project and a driving force in the work for gender mainstreaming. She promoted interdisciplinary “challenge solving” instead of the traditional individual, discipline based problem solving, which often applies in academia. This means moving away from guru/apprentice relationship to teams where the inputs of all members are distinct and valued. It also means a different style of leadership, one where there is less patronage and cloning. Professor Rees presented research evidence that shows women scientists’ careers prosper better in small interdisciplinary teams than in the more traditional leadership styles.

Considering the varied advancement on gender equality within Europe, it is difficult to create EU policies that are adaptable to the situation for women and men in all countries. Gender mainstreaming can be a way of overcoming this barrier as well.

Creativity and innovation at its best in gender diverse teams

Innovation prospers in workplaces with an even balance of men and women. It increases also when the women and men come from different cultures, shows research presented by Dr Julia Bear, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. These results support the findings of Professor Kevin Dunbar from the University of Maryland – he has started research on the behaviour of teams in research laboratories. Gender diverse teams increase the chance of discovery. Teams with men and women are more open for discussion and have different ways of viewing an unexpected result. Professor Dunbar presented his research on the ways scientists reason as they conduct their research. Research teams of prestigious molecular biology institutions were audio and video taped as they presented their research over a one year period. This led to the models of collective reasoning and distributed discovery ideas come from scientist’s interaction and are no longer an individual enterprise, which is in line the concept of a new leadership style presented by Professor Rees. Intriguingly, Professor Dunbar showed a slight difference in the way women and men react when finding unexpected results in the laboratory. Women had more tendencies to change the hypothesis of the experiment while men tended to change the method.

Gender equality makes better science

The best way to reach gender equality seems to be to embed it in all activities of your institution, organisation, department or company. Gender equality should rarely be a goal in itself – it should be a well planned indirect effect of a change in working structures or organisational structures.

The Public Consultation on the Future of Gender and Innovation in Europe’s aim is “to contribute to a more effective main-streaming of the gender dimension in research, innovation and in the scientific systems.”

I hope it will.

Featured image credit: ESF – Benita Lipps

Janna Wellander
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