Investigation into the dearth of female scientists

Quotas suggested as women’s success rate for Royal Society fellowships falls. Holly Else reports

October 2, 2014

Funding bodies could consider introducing quotas for women on early career awards to boost diversity in science.

That was the idea suggested by an emeritus professor at University College London after it emerged that only two of the Royal Society fellowship scheme’s awards went to women this year.

Uta Frith, of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and a fellow of the society, admitted that such a move was “beyond the pale” but added that the pace of progress for women in science was “not a very good story”.

The Royal Society is launching an investigation to find out why so few women secured its 43 University Research Fellowships, specifically for early career researchers. Data posted on its In Verba blog on 24 September revealed that female scientists had a success rate of 4.6 per cent, down from 17 per cent in 2013 and 18.9 per cent in 2012.

Executive director of the Royal Society Julie Maxton told Times Higher Education that the investigation would look at “everything” in a bid to find out why the success rate had plummeted. “We are very disappointed…nobody is happy about the message that it sends to women,” she said.

Dr Maxton said that the Royal Society would not consider introducing quotas because excellence is the primary criterion for funding awards. But she added that it would look at what other research funders do to see if there were lessons to be learned. The society does not currently give its reviewers unconscious bias training, for example, and this is something that it will look into.

Decisions on who got the society fellowships were made by various panels that overall had a 20 per cent representation of women.

But Professor Frith said that increasing female representation would offer “no guarantees” on diversity because “women have just as much of an implicit gender bias as men”. She said that a thorough scientific research project was instead needed to understand the issues.

Professor Frith added that quotas should not be “completely out of the question” for early career funding because such awards represent an investment in the future scientific workforce. But they would have to be “very carefully thought about” because women want to secure awards on merit not gender, she said.

Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and a previous fellowship holder, said that a bias may “creep in” if women do not apply to schemes because they think that they are not competitive. She applied for the award, which she won in 1993, only after being pushed by a male colleague, she added.

In 2012, the society launched a new early career research fellowship specifically for biomedical scientists, a factor that likely led to fewer female bids to the URF scheme.


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