Grants and pants - Lord May on why women are less thrusting

May 21, 2009

The Government's former Chief Scientific Adviser has come up with a controversial hypothesis to explain why female academics apply for fewer research grants than their male counterparts - they lack a penis.

Lord May, former chief scientist and former president of the Royal Society, shared his observations on women in science at a House of Lords seminar that was set up to highlight potential future flashpoints for science, policy and ethics.

Referring to a study performed in the late 1990s by the Wellcome Trust, the outspoken Australian said that although there was "not a shred of evidence" that female scientists in the UK suffered gender bias when it came to winning grants, they did put in fewer applications.

"My personal observation is that women tend to apply for the grants they need to do the job, whereas many of my male colleagues think the number of grants is correlated with the size of their penis," he explained.

He added that the problem of a lack of women in science was "quite complex" and was as much about society as science.

The theme of women in science had been raised at the meeting by Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and also a professor at the University of Oxford.

She referred to an analysis published in the journal Nature, also in the late 1990s, that showed that there was nepotism and sexism in the peer-review system.

Baroness Greenfield said that it was "shameful" that programmes for women in science were being offered by companies such as L'Oreal - which runs a fellowship scheme in conjunction with the Royal Institution - when they were "not being adopted wholesale by the Government".

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