In the second of a two-part special feature, Chief Scientific Adviser for Europe Professor Anne Glover shares her thoughts on gender equality, addressing climate change and her future hopes…
Professor Anne Glover
Anne Glover is a vocal advocate of improving gender equality in the science and engineering community, and she is clear that everyone has a responsibility for driving this change forward. "Improving the situation around gender equality is everyone's responsibility," she urges. "We need to make sure that not only do we have good employment law, but that we have good recruitment and retention practices.
Climate change won't affect most of the life on the planet. We will be negatively affected, but lots of other things like microbes will just adapt because they can evolve very quickly. It will be very hard to adapt to climate change with seven billion people, and rising, on the planet. We need to prevent it happening and that requires Europe to work together to identify visions and options for the future.
Professor Anne Glover
"Over the past 20 years, we've improved gender equality in science, engineering and technology – although not every area, as engineering is not a great example for high representation of women. What we know is that if you go into schools, young girls and boys all see science as exciting and fantastic. They'd like to be astronauts, engineers, or whatever. That is just as prevalent in boys and girls, and their ability is the same. We have a high application rate for further and higher education in these areas, but at the point where young people decide to have families, young women are lost because we don't ensure that the working environment is supportive enough for them to return."
Glover believes that it is vital to address the barriers at this point. "If this continues, it's going to be hard for Europe to be competitive," she explains, "because the member states and Europe as a whole invests a lot in a young person to train them up to the point of being an independent, contributing scientist or engineer. If we make that investment and then just throw it away, which we do with a very large percentage of women, we are continually losing a proportion of the best people, and can't be so competitive."
Whilst acknowledging that many women do go into useful employment after starting a family, Glover highlights that it is often particularly difficult for them to go back into their chosen subject. She does have some thought about how this can be addressed on a practical level.
"People may say it's just too difficult to change, but it's not," she states. "I have seen better examples of working practices. For example in Scotland, where I was previously based, I was in contact with a global contract research company with around 300 employees, 80% of which were women. The company has many staff with children and not a single woman, as of my latest understanding, has gone on maternity leave and not returned. It shouts out that you can do this, and the company in turn is very successful.
"It's not necessarily cause and effect, but we need to acknowledge that people are the most important asset that a company has and to employ the best, attracting and retaining them with positive working practices. It's what we need to be doing across Europe, whether it's a research institute, a university or a private company. Improving the working environment benefits all employees."
Childcare is a key issue for employment equality across the region, and this is something that Glover believes must be adapted if a skilled and balanced workforce is to be further developed. In an ideal world, she would like to be able to change childcare leave across Europe so that it is equally taken by both men and women, which Glover suggests would also be fairer to men, who often want to be able to spend more time with young children but are concerned that it might negatively impact on their career.
"In Finland, as I understand, they had a policy where any proportion of the leave could be taken by the man or the woman, but none of the men took paternity leave as they believed they wouldn't be taken seriously in the workplace if they did," she says. "So the government changed that to three months specifically for the mother, three months that must be taken by the father or he loses it, and a further three months for the couple to choose how to utilise.
"Overnight, men started taking months of paternity leave. One of the most insightful things for me is that a study done on those men who returned to work after paternity leave indicated that they were on average more successful than their male colleagues who had not been on paternity leave. You learn a lot of unusual skills that you may not have necessarily predicted in looking after a young baby that you take back to the workplace with you."
Glover believes that taking a new approach to family-life balance could have widespread benefits. "Just think of an environment where you employ the best person – with no thought at the back of your mind as to whether a female candidate may go off to have a baby, or that a man will bring more security and is likely to stay longer," she says. "It brings a level playing field. I'm not suggesting quotas, or positive discrimination, it's parity I'm looking for. If we have equality in this area and share out the burden amongst companies for people being in the workplace or in the family environment, it removes a major barrier to women being retained in scientific and technical fields."
Research environments are typically unfriendly places for families – both men and women with young children. Glover is keen to emphasise that it need not all be about large-scale changes.
"We need to consider even simple issues, such as when we have staff meetings," she suggests. "We shouldn't be having them at 6pm, because some people have responsibilities with their families. We should think about the unhealthy culture in the research environment of people having to be seen to be around very late at night and at weekends.
"I've often been impressed where people, due to necessity, have to make every minute count when they are at work, doing a full day's work and leaving on time, but often getting more accomplished than the person who is seen to be staying late. The role of government is to make sure that employment legislation protects people in the workplace, whilst allowing them to fulfil other personal roles."
From the research environment to the physical one, another of Glover's priorities is in supporting Europe to fulfil its responsibilities in addressing climate change. Even in the face of ongoing economic difficulties, she is hugely focused on what the region has to offer in this respect.
"Europe has an enormous role in leadership," she outlines. "Individual member states sometimes struggle with this, but Europe has been imaginative about a number of its proposals around climate change, carbon taxes and so on. If one thing surprises me, it's that we don't realise the urgency of the issue. I can remember being struck several years ago when Nick Stern published his Economics of Climate Change review. People did sit up then, because they realised that if we do nothing now it's going to cost us a fortune in the future, but if we just spend a little bit now we protect ourselves in the future. The force of this argument has somehow been diluted with time, though the scientific evidence gives us a very clear description of how human activity is affecting our climate.
"The consensus on that is absolute. We are also able to reduce uncertainty around what the impact of a certain amount of greenhouse gases in the environment will be, in terms of average global temperature increase and sea level rise. We are even, to a certain extent, proposing solutions through science, engineering and technology. But we're not acting on these things, and I believe it's because it will mean that people in the developed world will have to change how they live.
"But change is not always a bad thing: it could be very positive," Glover continues.
"Europe can start to illustrate a future where we have changed and protected the
human position on the planet – because we need to remember that is what it's about. Climate change won't affect most of the life on the planet. We will be negatively affected, but lots of other things like microbes will just adapt because they can evolve very quickly. It will be very hard to adapt to climate change with seven billion people, and rising, on the planet. We need to prevent it happening and that requires Europe to work together to identify visions and options for the future.
"It won't just be scientific evidence that's involved. We also need the input from imaginative economists, innovative sociologists and psychologists. Then, of course, we need politicians with a great appetite and imagination for change – they can only deliver the future with all of these people playing a part. We have to work together on this and there hasn't been another such global challenge quite like this where the solution is not in the hands of one set of people.
"The solution will be delivered by working across boundaries, and that in itself can be really rewarding to do. I am optimistic that there is a future for humans on the planet, but we can't just carry on as normal and imagine that it will all somehow fix itself. Europe is in the ideal position to extend its already strong leadership."
The transformation trail
The challenges that Europe's Chief Scientific Adviser is beginning to address are quite considerable and, given the relatively slow pace of change in both research and politics, does she think it's realistic to make a tangible transformation in the coming years? Glover will be in the position for the duration of the current presidency, until the end of 2014.
"I'm confident that I will make a difference or I wouldn't have accepted the role," she explains. "I know that already people are seeing the whole idea of science, engineering and technology evidence as an opportunity because they feel that there is someone who can translate it for them, talk to them about the possibilities and get people in touch with others that they wouldn't normally talk to.
"I will be looking to highlight the use of science and evidence in policymaking more, and then consider how we can get all European citizens to see science as something very positive instead of some people feeling a little suspicious about it. Most of the exciting things in our lives, most of the cures for our ailments and an awful lot of our cultural enjoyment comes from science, engineering and technology, but there has not been a voice talking about that. I want to talk about it and I want to encourage others to do so. I will be reliant on people working with me.
"Some member states have already approached me with the thought that as Europe now has a chief scientific adviser, should they have one? That is terrific and I very much like the idea that we could move forward with more member states seeing the advantage of a chief scientific adviser and have issues being discussed between member states, initially at the level of evidence. People could have much more well-informed and vibrant discussions that are on a platform of evidence because there has been some pre-discussion at that level across the different regions. It presents lots of opportunities and it's up to me to take them on and to find enough hours in the day to do so."
The full version of this interview is published in two parts across issues 15 and 16 of Public Service Review: European Science and Technology.