The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

Women in Science: Leading from the Top

Could affirmative action be the way forward?

A female scientist talking about science
A female scientist talking about science
As many people have been saying lately, there’s a problem with the numbers of women in science. A recent paper showed frank, if possibly unconscious, gender bias in recruitment of scientific faculty. Another found it in research conferences, in a field where, overall, women outnumber men.

Leadership is often considered an important factor in cultural change. Assuming for now that having more women in science would be a good thing, let's take a look at one of the oldest and most eminent leaders of the scientific world: The Royal Society.

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The Royal Society is one of the most high-profile organisations in science. Being elected to a Royal Society Fellowship is considered a career-crowning accolade. Yet the Society has been criticised, as has science more generally, because of its small proportion of female members. Since 1995, the Society has been trying to promote women scientists.

In that year it lauched the Dorothy Hodgkin research fellowships (current success rate, 4 percent), which support researchers who need to work flexibly. The awards aren’t women-only, but, says the Society, "Female candidates are particularly invited to apply." More recently, a Wikipedia edit-a-thon about women in science aimed to raise awareness of female scientific role models (see also Wired on the topic).

So what is the problem, and what progress has been made?

Below is a graph indicating why women need promoting, especially at the highest levels. The image shows the sex ratio of current Royal Society Fellows, by year, since women were first allowed to join in 1945. (That’s only a few decades after they gained the vote, and access to universities.) A ratio of 50 percent would represent equal numbers of male and female Fellows: gender parity at this summit of science. In the real world, women still have a mountain to climb.

Sex ratio for Royal Society Fellows, 1945-2010
Sex ratio for Royal Society Fellows, 1945-2010
Note that the number of Fellows has risen considerably since the Second World War, and most of the new additions have been men. Note also that, as of 2010, the sex ratio is still under 6%.

Perhaps the most interesting observation, however, is that until the Royal Society took active steps to change things in 1995, there was very little growth. The proportion of women topped 1 percent in 1947, 2 percent in 1956, and 3 percent in 1967. It took 35 more years to reach 6 percent, and most of that growth occurred after 1995, when the proportion was still hovering around 3.5 percent.

Is this an argument for some form of affirmative action? Even at current growth rates, we can calculate that those looking for gender parity at the highest level of UK science will have to wait until the late 2080s, unless further steps are taken.

The Royal Society can console itself, however, with the knowledge that at least it’s doing better than the Nobel Prizes. Comparable figures? As of 2010:

Physiology/medicine: 5.1 percent

Chemistry: 2.5 percent

Physics: 1.1 percent

How about a big-value science prize or prizes for women only? To be christened the Nobelles, of course! That might change the gender bias of science faster than any amount of Wikipedia editing.

Copyright Kathleen Taylor 2012.

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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