Women represent less than one-eighth of the membership of the world’s national science academies, according to a study that identifies the UK as one of the worst performers for gender equality.
An analysis of 69 national science academies, conducted by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), found that the average proportion of members who were women stood at just 12 per cent in 2013-14.
In the UK, just 92 (6 per cent) of the Royal Society’s 1,419 members were women in 2013-14, the study says. Only seven countries had a worse record, with the lowest proportion of women – 4 per cent – found in the Polish and Tanzanian academies of sciences.
Women were better represented in the academies of North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, with the Cuban Academy of Sciences having the highest proportion of female members (27 per cent).
Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, says that diversity is important if national societies are to fulfil their role of advising governments and policymakers.
“If this voice is to be truly representative it needs to be inclusive,” Professor Donald writes on her blog. “For too long academies have not lived up to this.”
Women were “best” represented in the social sciences, biological sciences and medical sciences, accounting for between 14 and 16 per cent of members of national academies in these fields, on average. They were least likely to be among members from the mathematical sciences (6 per cent) and engineering (5 per cent).
Worryingly, 60 per cent of academies that responded to the survey said that they had no policies in place to address the underrepresentation of women.
One explanation of the data is that male academy members might nominate and elect colleagues from professional networks formed over previous decades, the study says. Another possibility, it adds, is that academy membership may be designed to honour a lifetime body of work, and female scientists tend to be younger and less senior.