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Women, Science, Biotechnology:
What does the Future hold for the Mediterranean?

Turin (Italy) 29-31 janvier 1999

International Mediterranean Women's Forum UNESCO Network


Third International Congress


Preamble   Back to top

Although significant progress has been achieved during the 1990s in translating the goal of equal opportunities for all into a reality, ‘those who believe that equality in research will come of itself within a short time are out of touch with reality’ (Hilden report, 1997). Moreover, equality of opportunities is not something that can be achieved in a vacuum, but rather forms part of the essential fabric of human rights and responsibilities in the global development of society. However, the emerging world of the near future, ‘does not inspire wholehearted enthusiasm: the winds of freedom have rekindled the embers of hatred’ (Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO). In the field of gender justice and the development of equal opportunities as a part of ‘Best Policy in Science Management’, we would do well to bear in mind the words of Mrs Elsa Stamatopoulou (Chair of the New York offices of the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), ‘Through education, we should make people more aware of human rights because only education can change the minds and hearts of people’.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to press forward at all levels, not only with initiatives such as those discussed during the Third International Conference of the International Mediterranean Women’s forum, but especially with their practical implementation by educating all of the players in science, engineering and technology (SET) how to treat women and men as equals, with the same right to successful career development.

We recognise the undeniable right of all members of the human race, not only to be treated as equals, but also to enjoy the necessary circumstances, welfare, education and training so as to be able to have equal opportunities of access to all levels of the decision making process. This requires:   Back to top

  • discussion and adoption of policies and specific actions that guarantee a representative proportion of women on all peer-review and recruitment panels, as well as on the editorial bodies of both the specialised journals and the mass media.

  • governments, national and international public bodies to organise training programmes in the implementation of equal opportunities for all of the faculty and staff of universities and research centres.

Within the context of the debates of the working groups on:

1. Development and Economy;
2. Culture and Education; and
3. Biotechnology,

the following basic premises were recognised as a basis for the discussions:   Back to top

  • the definition of development by the United Nations Decade on Women (Equality, Development and Peace):

Development means total development, including development in the political, economic, social, cultural and other dimensions of human life, as well as the development of the economic and other material resources and physical, moral, intellectual and cultural growth of human beings. Development also requires a moral dimension to ensure that it is just and responsive to the needs and rights of the individual and that science and technology are applied within a social and economic framework that ensures environmental safety for all forms of life on our planet.

  • the importance of recognising the very significant contribution of women to scientific and technological development in the 20th century. Moreover, this ‘value added’ aspect should be further developed so as to harness fully the abilities and efforts of more than half of humanity;

  • achieving equality of status in research and higher education is a management responsibility at all levels. The initiatives in support of equality will improve mankind's overall research potential and technological capacity;

  • the need for politicians and decision makers at international, national and local levels to acknowledge both the ethical questions related to biotechnological research, discoveries and applications, and their social, cultural, economic and political antecedents and implications. This is particularly critical in terms of the many implications for women that arise, therefore they must be involved in significant numbers in all discussions and decisions on these questions at all levels (scientists, decision makers, public representatives);

  • the lack of statistics related to many of the key issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve equal opportunities for women.

Some of the key words which featured in the presentations and debates were (in no particular order):   Back to top

women as role models:

to be used by the media when presenting or discussing issues of SET;
mainstreaming the application of equal opportunities in all policies and actions;
downstreaming: stopping the gender brain drain in SET careers;
re-education: training of management and administration personnel in equal opportunities;
exclusions: the elimination of both explicit and implicit forms of excluding women from equal opportunities;
family-friendly: the adoption by all public and private bodies of policies which make a woman's career in SET compatible with caring for dependent family members;
return to work: the development of programmes which contribute to female researchers being able to re-start their professional activity after an interruption;
publicity: the need for diffusion and discussion of these issues and the benefits resulting from policies promoting equal opportunities;
gender stereotyping: the abuse of ‘negative’ role models for boys and girls;
networking: associations and discussion groups of women to help women;
women-friendly technology: innovations in family planning techniques and domestic technology;
responsibility: women scientists have the responsibility to warn about the possible problems of scientific discoveries;
exploitation: women scientists should work to ensure that biotechnological discoveries are used to help people and are guided by that goal.
involvement: women scientists should be involved in the raising and discussion of the ethical, cultural and social implications of their research.


Considering that:


some of the obstacles for the full participation of women in research are:   Back to top

  • lack of a scientific multidisciplinary culture in the educational curricula;

  • gender segregation in education and training, gender stereotypes in culture and society and their influence on parents and girls' attitudes and expectations;

  • unbalanced distribution of domestic responsibilities (for a woman scientist, family and job are often mutually exclusive alternatives).


the impact of SET can be very positive on women's lives (the impressive participation of women in the labour force since the 1970s has been possible thanks to, among other things, the innovations in family planning techniques and to technological advances):   Back to top

  • more efforts should be undertaken to develop women-friendly technology and to consider women's interests and needs;

  • as new technology is developed, there should be a continual effort to relate it to the technology that is already generally available.


women have developed new and innovative approaches in the field of socio-economic sciences:   Back to top

  • more recognition should be given to their contribution, which is too often ignored or copied without attribution.


traditionally, men deal with macro-economic policies and decisions, and women with micro-policies:

  • new trends in macro-economics are discovering local development as a key element for sustainable macro-economics (local/global); women's experiences at the local community level can offer models and good practices;

  • at the micro-level, many projects have been implemented to combat poverty by income-generation projects and micro-business;

  • innovative methods have been developed but, to be effective, they should be disseminated and made to contribute to a redefinition of macro-policies' models. This will avoid a vicious circle between the adoption of macro-models that generate poverty and exclusion, and micro-intervention that tries to alleviate their negative impact.


scientists in the field of biotechnology must play an active and central role in identifying and defining the ethical issues related to biotechnology and their implications. These would include questions such as:   Back to top

  • what research questions should be studied and what avenues pursued;

  • who defines the priorities and on what basis -scientific curiosity, or human betterment, or financial gain etc;

  • how the research is conducted – with or without animals, with or without a gender perspective;

  • in genetic research, people should have the right to know, or the duty to know, or the right not to know, what their genetic make-up is;

  • whether or not positions should be codified in law, or whether they should be left to the judgement of the people concerned – for example in terms of surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilisation, etc.


the continued increase of scientific and technical knowledge among women is very important and places the following challenges on teachers, the mass media and role models:   Back to top

  • the development of improved teaching skills that will be able to arouse the interest of female students at all levels and impart scientific and technological skills to them;

  • girls need to be convinced of the important role women can play in SET (and boys should be educated to accept and encourage this in their sisters and peers);

  • the joy, satisfaction and rewards which women can achieve, through their careers in these fields, need to be emphasised and publicised;

  • women who are already in key positions should help other women to enter into and develop careers in SET;

  • these actions have to be directed not only at the girls themselves, but also at their parents, teachers and professors (at all levels). They should also include contacts and career orientation with universities, technical schools and high-tech industries;

  • the mass media can assist in the education of parents in the developing education scenario so that they understand better the way their children are being taught;

  • the mass media should use female scientists and engineers as presenters of SET programmes, thereby providing women role models;

  • at the same time, the workload of existing role models should be officially recognised by employers, as is already the case for science ‘popularisers’;

  • negative stereotypes must be eliminated.


there are difficulties to be overcome in entering the world of SET and many traps along the path of women's careers in these fields:   Back to top

  • policies to open these fields to women must be adopted, including gender neutral selection committees and a representative balance in all aspects of the peer review process;

  • exclusion (explicit and implicit) must be eliminated, as well as intolerance in all of its forms;

  • the authorities, administration and management must stop the gender brain drain by learning to care about the future of women in SET careers;

  • family-friendly working conditions must be offered, including social benefits (e.g. tax allowances for childcare costs), so that SET careers are compatible with family responsibilities;

  • ongoing programmes of education and training – especially for women facing the challenge of renewing their professional activity after a break for whatever reason – must be implemented in all fields;

  • women need to be able to obtain the academic recognition and funding which are necessary to achieve positions of responsibility.


there is a need to continue to promote forums where women can discuss their problems and future role in SET, including spaces where younger students can meet role models and discuss the issues which they have faced and how they have coped successfully with these.   Back to top

We call on politicians and decision-makers at all levels to:


acknowledge both the moral obligation and scientific necessity of:

  • adopting equal opportunity policies based on scientific criteria in order to benefit the community and all of humanity;
  • incorporate these policies in all their decisions and strategic directives;
  • introduce these policies at the highest levels and apply them vertically;
  • develop and set up training programmes that focus on this issue and ensure that they are imparted to all of the staff of universities and research centres.

share good practices, programmes and policies on removing the explicit and implicit barriers.


direct more efforts toward creating a critical mass of women in policy- and decision-making, at all levels, including the economic and financial fields.


give women scientists prominent positions in all of these programmes so that they can represent the points of view of women, and serve as role models.

We also call upon scientists in the field of biotechnology to play a major role in educating politicians, decision-makers and the general public about:   Back to top

  • the limitations of science and its ability to understand the complex interrelationships between various factors (particularly, with regard to the Human Genome Project at this point in time);

  • the tremendous advances made in research and the possibilities they open up to us;

  • the threats that exist today to excellence in science from economic interests in the research and the attendant wish to sometimes limit the free dissemination of the results;

  • the implications of decisions taken both on the personal and public level, so that ‘informed consent’ is not merely a slogan.

We also call for:   Back to top

  • the maximum diffusion of these statements and recommendations by UNESCO, both to governments and other relevant bodies, as well as through the creation by it of specialised -homepages on the Internet, so as to reach as wide an audience as possible;

  • the dissemination by UNESCO of biotechnology information through the Internet, so that scientists in all countries have access to up-to-date information;

  • in response to the urgent need, these recommendations to be translated into concrete actions in the form of training programmes, under the banner of ‘Best Policy’ in SET management, promoted and organised by governments, national and international public bodies, as well as by both the public and private research sectors;

  • the development of a common definition for the necessary statistics and an international database on gender-related issues.



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