Gender split on fellowship scheme ‘unacceptable’

The Royal Society has not been able to find any reason why so few women were successful in securing awards from one of its fellowship schemes in 2014

March 2, 2015

Source: Science Photo Library

But the report into the fact that just two of its 43 University Research Fellowships went to women finds that the situation is “unacceptable”.

It recommends that the society take action to “ensure that it attracts women to apply and judges their applications on par with those by men”.

The Royal Society’s URFs provide at least five years of funding to early career scientists with the potential to become leaders in their fields. In September last year the society announced that success rates for women had plummeted to less than 5 per cent in 2014, down from 17 per cent the previous year and 37 per cent in 2010.

At the time, Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said that the statistics send out a “bad message to young female scientists” and launched an investigation to try to understand what had happened.

The investigation looked at the processes used to select candidates for all the society’s career development awards, including the Sir Henry Dale fellowship for the biomedical sciences and the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship that offers support for flexible working, as well as the URF.

The resulting report, University Research Fellowships 2014, could not “identify any factor or combination of factors” to explain why the outcome was “so extreme”.

“[T]he outcome is unacceptable and…the Society must take what actions it can to ensure that it attracts women to apply and judges their applications on a par with those by men,” says the report.

An analysis reveals the gradual attrition of female candidates at each step of the selection process. The minutes of the various discussion meetings involved in whittling down the candidates show that the gender balance was noted at the time, but the selection panels took “no further action” because they thought the candidates had been selected on the basis of excellence.

The URF scheme is now dominated by researchers working in the physical sciences, where male candidates are more common, according to the report. This is because in 2012 the society launched the Sir Henry Dale fellowship specifically for biomedical researchers. In a blog accompanying the report Sir Paul says that reporting outcomes for these schemes separately “is likely to distort the true overall figure”.

He adds that when the data for these schemes are combined, the overall success rates for women are “reasonably similar to men” over the past six years.

“A major problem that needs to be tackled is that there are not enough women applying for these prestigious schemes and we need to look at why that is – are there enough female scientists at this career stage or is something putting them off applying?” he says.

The report outlines a series of changes that the society and its council have agreed to implement for all selection panels. These include revising all promotion material and application forms for fellowships to remove anything that may be stopping women from applying. It will also publish profiles of successful candidates to give examples to potential applicants.

A “programme of action” will make sure that the people who serve on selection panels are aware of differences in how candidates may present themselves, and how to recognise bias and unreasoned judgement.

The society will also look at the data on diversity at different career stages to see whether new research could help address any gaps. “The Royal Society is completely committed to these changes,” says Sir Paul in the blog post.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (2)

I appreciate the effort they have put into this investigation, but I do wonder if they could look more closely at the peer review aspect of the assessment of applications, as this is the stage where they have the least input. Clearly the panels have been, or will be, trained on gender issues and based on the report there is no reason to believe that they have contributed to the imbalance of awards. However, the panel have to base their decisions on the comments of external reviewers, so if these are in some way gender biased it will of course result in a biased outcome. Only 8% of these reviewers were female. Regardless of the representation of females amongst the reviewers, research has shown that both males and females tend to subconsciously rate applications from men higher than identical applications from women. I'm not certain there is any easy answer here - anonymising applications may be useful, but this is not feasible where the candidates track record also needs to be assessed. Might there be a way to assess track record separately from the actual project?
The NSF Advance programme has funded research into tackling gender bias in the STEMM disciplines, They have some evidence based guidelines on how to run schemes to push back against unconscious bias. Saying 'we've investigated, and it's a terrible shame but we have no idea how this happened' is not really good enough.

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