INRA’s latest report shows that women make up 49.7% of its staff. However, in 2006 85% of unit directors were male and still only a quarter were female last year.
In other positions of responsibility, women make up 21% of heads of department and represent 30% of centre directors.
Nevertheless, the number of women recruited as lead researchers is slightly higher than those who are men – 53% in 2010 according to INRA.
“If we are not vigilant, models repeat themselves over and over. We are cautious but we don’t give privileges to women,” said Marion Guillou, president of INRA.
She said that biology – a core subject at the institute – is a field that tends to attract more women than men.
She also pointed out that the institute keeps an eye on the gender composition of its recruitment examination boards.
Guillou, who spoke in French to FoodNavigator.com, said: “There is a desire to be as fair as possible and to give as much chance for women to be promoted as men.”
According to French law, management and examination boards must have at least a third of each sex.
But the institute goes a step further; Guillou said that management makes sure that everyone is treated equally regardless of sex so everyone has the same opportunities when it comes to job prospects.
When it comes to understanding the issue of gender balance, Guillou said that when she was a university student it was difficult to be the only woman in her class.
“I felt it was more difficult to be a woman than a man, only because I was the minority. When you belong to a minority, you have more to prove than when you belong to a majority,” said Guillou.
But times have changed, she said. The new generation is used to studying in a mixed environment and being a woman isn’t an obstacle to pursue a career in sectors where men used to dominate, she added.
Guillou’s colleague Catherine Feuillet, research director at INRA Clermond Ferrand said there are still barriers.
“There is a lot of upstream work to do,” said Feuillet. “Young female colleagues need to be convinced that they have as much potential as their male counterparts.”
Lack of confidence
Feuillet and Guillou both said that young women hold themselves back due to a lack of confidence.
“I had to do a lot of work to have confidence and tell myself that I was able to do things, to be part of big projects…It’s a man’s world, we have to play by men’s rules in order to reach key positions,” said Feuillet.
Although the research sector is male oriented, the policy at INRA is to support and encourage women who wish to apply for research director positions and who find it difficult because they have family obligations, she said.