Women in Quantum Technologies - What are the challenges?


On 11 February 2020, COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) is hosting a working lunch event on Woman in Quantum Technologies in its premises in Brussels. This event coincides with the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Europe has a strong tradition in quantum research, which began with the creation of quantum physics in the first decades of the twentieth century and recently the Quantum flagship launched in 2018.

Today, the quantum community gathers over 5000 European researchers in academia and industry searching to place Europe at the forefront of Quantum innovation.

Women and the quantum community 

However, according to UNESCO.[1] Data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women and this figure is even less within this quantum community.

Women remain under-represented significantly among PhD graduates, researchers and at the highest level of the academic career. These facts come out the She Figures survey conducted by the European Commission since its launch in 2003. The most recent survey still indicates that there is a significant gap.

In this context, Prof. Ruth Oulton, from the University of Bristol and the gender balance advisor and Dr Dondu Sahin COST Action NQO Member for the COST Action Nanoscale Quantum Optics together with Professor Mario Agio, Chair of the Action and Prof. Irene D’Amico, Vice Chair have worked on a survey published in 2016 providing key figures to evaluate the state of play of Woman in Quantum Technologies.

Despite clear evidence for gender inequality in science and the established reasons for this, such as implicit bias, they were interested in whether the scientific community themselves were knowledgeable about gender inequality in their community.

What came out of the survey is about 2/3 (59%) of women believe that they do not have equal career opportunities to men in this field (nanoscale quantum optics), whereas about 2/3 (56%) of men believe there is no difference in opportunities for either sex.

Both men and women reported believing that motherhood negatively affected a female scientist’s career. 35% of women felt strongly that this was a problem.

Improving gender balance

Approximately twice as many women as men (64% versus 33%) reported personally undertaking activities to promote gender balance.

Both men and women felt that the best way to promote gender balance was to provide support for women. However, this goes against well documented evidence that targeting senior leaders usually men, is the most effective method.

As a result of this survey, several gender focused activities were instigated during scientific COST meetings. These included Prof. Oulton presenting information on gender balance issues, particularly the role of implicit bias, and very importantly, discussion sessions focused on topics such as positive discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. It was hoped that these sessions would raise awareness and engage all members of the scientific community in positive action for gender balance.

Further investigation

In order to monitor progress amongst this group, a second survey from 2019 was performed, which has highlighted three stand-out results. In positive news, the engagement by men in gender balance activities is now at the same level as women compared to the 2016 survey. However, more detailed questions showed that as a community there is still room for improvement.  For instance, the lack of knowledge of senior men about the prevalence of sexual harassment compared to senior women is stark, despite the 2017 “me too” movement. 53% of senior women scientists reported knowing several people to whom sexual harassment had happened to, while 70% of senior men knew personally of no cases at all.

The 2019 survey highlighted areas where the whole scientific community should focus. A striking result is that all 9 women at postdoc stage said that it was at scientific meetings in particular where they experienced inequality. No female postdocs in the survey felt that scientific meetings were an equal environment.

Removing the barriers to gender equality

As part of this COST Action, Prof. Ruth Oulton and Dr Dondu Sahin have strongly focused on the gender balance issue, with significant successes. Key to success in changing hearts and minds within the scientific community is to present factual evidence of gender imbalance rather than opinions, and to involve both men and women in the discussion. However, as the second survey suggests, there is still a long way to go to remove the barriers to gender equality in science and within the quantum research community.

Find out more about the upcoming event, Women in Quantum Technology, including how you can apply: