Women in quantum technologies


Conversations Unscripted is a multistakeholder initiative that brings together European leaders to explore avenues to reduce the gender gap in the fields of politics and technology. COST is one of the implementing partners of the project alongside Microsoft’s European Government Affairs team, WOMEN IN TECH, Womenpreneur-Initiative, Women4Cyber Foundation, WIIS Brussels, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), and the European Cyber Security Organisation (ECSO).

Last week, the initiative organised its flagship event ‘Minding the Gap: increasing women participation in policy and technology in Europe’ bringing together leaders from key European Institutions and the tech industry to discuss enabling environments to ensure higher women participation in European politics and technology.

Women in Quantum

As part of the event COST and Professor Ruth Oulton from COST Action Nanoscale Quantum Optics organised a dedicated session ‘Women in quantum technology‘ where we discussed the current state of play for women’s careers and innovative ways to ensure greater levels of equality in the future.

Did you know that over 5000 European researchers in academia and industry are involved in the quantum community but only 15% of these are women. According to the UN, women compromise around 30% of total researchers so why are women are woefully underrepresented within quantum?

In order to investigate these disparities Prof Oulton, Gender Balance Advisor for Nanoscale Quantum Optics presented the surveys and awareness raising activities that were carried out during the course of the Action.

Surveying quantum scientists

This network was unique in building an approach that made it possible for them to understand gender attitudes from both women and men towards women in quantum. Key takeaways from the surveys include a clear imbalance between men’s and women’s view – 64% of women don’t believe they have equal opportunities whereas 56% of men believe there is no difference. Women felt strongly that they were treated differently outside their organisation (when networking or at conferences) but men were not aware at all of this imbalance. Understanding these gendered differences was key to the Action developing awareness raising sessions for both the women and men (separately and together) in order to create maximum impact.

Sexual harassment is also a critical topic broached by the Action, and the results shared by Prof Oulton were also eye-opening for the Conversions Unscripted audiences, with half of women reporting some experience of sexual harassment yet 70% of senior men claiming that they did not know of anyone who had been affected.

The survey showed two important things:

  1. Male and female scientists do not agree about the importance and causes of gender imbalance
  2. Most scientists are not aware of the existing research on the subject.

Accordingly, the approach of Nanoscale Quantum Optics was to arm scientists with factual knowledge (for example by proving information about implicit bias and other studies during all of the Actions scientific meetings) and encourage active engagement via discussion sessions with an equal voice for men and women. And what was the impact?

Impact and recommendations

When comparing survey results from 2016 to 2019 it became clear that the awareness raising at the beginning of the Action had resulted in changing the opinions and activities of men to support gender equality:

In terms of what’s next for the quantum sector as a whole Prof Oulton stressed that we need to inform, discuss and encourage:

  • Scientists need facts and data to be convinced
  • Keep on asking women for their perspectives
  • Allow an opportunity for free discussion on controversial topics
  • Enable senior scientists and leaders to lead the way
  • Ensure funders policies are female friendly

Prof Oulton also highlighted that it is disappointing to see initiatives like Ada Lovelace Day (an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) celebrated on the second Tuesday of October) ending due to budget constraints and a mistaken notion that gender inequality in STEM has been fixed.

Gender equality at COST

Looking at a gender equality from a wider scale, COST Policy Officer Judith Litjens also presented a ‘state of play’ of women in COST Actions (specifically focusing on women leadership positions) and other forthcoming initiatives that are set to strengthen and improve the position of women in COST such as COST’s Gender Equality Plan (GEP) and a dedicated peer-to-peer community for women COST Action Chairs.