How can Poland increase the number of women in science?

How can we increase the number of women in science? Don’t just create programs for women. These conclusions have been drawn from the experiences of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP).

The FNP is one of the most important and prestigious organizations who finance scientific research in Poland. Its motto is “support the best so that they can become even better”.

When a researcher in Poland becomes an FNP laureate, they may hear the words “wow!” from their admiring colleagues. The FNP runs programs for researchers during various stages of their careers and has been supporting women scientists for nearly ten years. Justyna Motrenko, who was responsible for providing support for pregnant women scientists in previous years and is now the head of the panel for awards and scholarships, tells us how the approach to women’s issues has been evolving.

Professor in physical chemistry Robert Holyst

Why does the Foundation for Polish Science support women scientists?

Justyna Motrenko, FNP: Because women are dropping out of science. In Poland we have a comparable number of doctoral students – both women and men. Typically, however, men continue on with their scientific careers after they have defended their doctorate. Whereas women more often tend to abandon theirs. Or their professional development slows down in contrast to their male peers. This happens typically at around the age of 30, i.e. when people decide to start a family and children start arriving. This affects the careers of women more than it affects men. As a foundation, we strive to make sure that science in Poland is the best that it can be. Consequently, we take steps to ensure that when people leave science, that this is not due to non-substantive reasons and that women, who are great scientists, do not have to quit their science jobs.

Since when has the foundation had these schemes for women?

We started 10 years ago, when the ‘Pomoście’( Bridge) scheme was launched. Although I would like to point out that from the very beginning these are not exclusively schemes for women.

There were two factors to the ‘Bridge scheme’. The first one consisted of programs for women – for scientists who were pregnant and whose scientific work involved hazardous conditions. Women were offered ways to hire stand-ins for dangerous technical work, and they were free to continue their analytical or conceptual work. It seemed to us that by doing so, they would not be held back in their scientific work.

The second factor was the so-called ‘return schemes’ for parents, women and men who want to rejoin the workforce and return to their scientific work after a break due to pregnancy or child raising.

Magdalena Niemira, researcher Medical University of Bialystok Białystok

Did it pan out that way? Was there any interest in such support? The “Bridge” is no longer being implemented.

Actually, interest was huge. We had over 700 return scheme applications during 8 recruitment drives conducted over 4 years. Over 100 women and 1 man benefited from these. 63 women received support during their pregnancies. As it turned out, the schemes for pregnant women did not fully translate into scientific work, because maternity and parental leave then followed.

On the other hand, as far as the return scheme was concerned, the format turned out to be too restrictive. That is why we have extended the conditions and now we are running the ‘return’ scheme for young doctors who want to get back to research work after a break which was perhaps related to parenthood or to employment outside of school.

It is more the case that our programs are evolving. We have seen that situations in the different fields of science are wide-ranging. Personal situations of scientists are diverse, and the reason for the break is not particularly important. The important thing is that the scientist wants to return to their scientific work after their break.

That said, science is very meritocratic. What matters are measurable achievements. There is a danger that the special scheme for young mothers will be considered less competitive than the other general grant programs. Therefore, we are moving towards taking into account the needs of women and young parents in our other programs. We would like this to be a universal principle. For example, in the ‘Start’ scholarship program for young scientists, we have announced an increase in the age limit up to the age of 30 for those candidates who have taken maternity or parental leave.

Schemes that allow people to return to work after maternity leave are just one aspect. The second is the creation of tools that support women’s careers in science. Including assistance for those who govern universities and who strive for equal representation of women and men in managerial positions yet who have problems finding candidates with suitable competencies.

Dr Katarzyna Matczyszyn, Associate Professor, Advanced Materials Engineering and Modelling Group, Faculty of Chemistry, Wroclaw University of Science and Technology,

Where should we look for them?

On, for instance. This is a database only for women scientists. It distinguishes itself by the fact that it is impossible to subscribe to it by yourself. You have to be nominated by one of the grant institutions operating across Europe.

We are a partner of the portal. We nominate women, including the successful applicants of our programs, and we use the portal to look for assessors and experts, among others.

What are the Foundation’s conclusions after 10 years of supporting female scientists?

I see two important factors. Firstly, that we need help for young parents – scientists – and support for childcare. Secondly, it is important that the work climate should be favorable to those who return to scientific work. That breaks should not be considered odd, and that the scientist should be able to return and have time for a recap and a run-through. I know that it is difficult to influence something such as the work climate, but the more people talk about this, the better. People who have experience outside of science are valuable because they bring new perspectives and ideas. Perhaps then gender equality in science will finally be discernable at the next career stage in the statistics.

Tomorrow is good: Made with morality

It was actually launched in the summer of 2016: the car for women. The SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan was the result of a collaboration between the SEAT design team and the editors and readers of the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. The car was marketed as “exclusive” and aimed at the modern, fashion-conscious woman. The SEAT Mii by Cosmopolitan is ‘trendy’, ‘fashionable’, ‘sporty’, ‘versatile’ and ‘bold’ and offers the modern woman the opportunity to ‘express her personal lifestyle,’ says the marketing director.

The ‘women’s car’ purports an aesthetic appeal which is full of cringe-worthy clichés. The car is small, easy to drive and park, including rear parking sensors, and is equipped with gadgets such as extra hooks to hang a handbag. It is available in two colours: “the very feminine Violetto and the slightly more conventional Candy White.”  Violetto is purple and Candy White is off-white, although these don’t sound all that exclusive.


“Dark tones predominate in the upholstery so as to add a sense of both security and glamour.” How colour can lead to feeling safer is not clear to me, but extra protection would not be a superfluous luxury for women in cars. Women are less involved in accidents than men, but if they do end up in them, they are more likely to be injured and die.

Car safety is tested with the ‘standard man’ in mind and that has fatal consequences for women. Crash test dummies are modelled on the ‘average’ man: 1.77m tall, 76 kg in weight and the distribution of their muscle mass is masculine. The fact that women have fewer muscles in their neck and upper body than men makes them more susceptible to whiplash in the event of a rear-end collision. The chair offers insufficient protection for women who on average weigh less than men. Women are also more likely to be injured in the event of a head-on collision, even when they are wearing a seat belt.

There have been female crash test dummies since the late 1960s, but critics argue that these do not take enough into account how women are really built; they are not merely smaller and lighter versions of men. In Europe, it was only in 2014 that a female test dummy was developed that was modelled on an ‘average’ woman. Pregnant test dummies did not receive attention until the 1990s, about forty years after the first test dummies were developed, which meant that the safety of pregnant women was ignored for a very long time.

Moral impact

Anyone who designs, continually makes choices. Not just functional choices but also those with a moral impact. Morality and technology are consequently not separate domains at all but are strongly intertwined. Designers, engineers, computer scientists, programmers, etc.: they often see themselves as neutral, practical and active in the field of the sciences. Without making it so explicit or viewing it as such, they can take their own world, moral framework or gender as the norm, with the result that others are discriminated against or ignored. Only by paying explicit attention to the ethical aspects of a design do these blind spots become visible. Ethics play a crucial role on various levels: that of the designer, the user and the technology itself that is the result of (moral) choices. For a long time, ethical technology was regarded as something that came later – after technology had been developed. But ethical questions about design must be asked immediately prior to and during the design process. As every product made by humans is ‘made with morality.’

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Lucien Engelen, Peter de Kock, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.