Motherhood is the millstone

August 24, 2001

The Royal Society is not biased against women, says Nancy Rothwell. It is motherhood that holds us back.

Has sexism reared its ugly head in that most revered of scientific institutions, the Royal Society? Britain's national academy of science, founded in 1660, has included among its fellows some of the most famous names in science: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick, Dorothy Hodgkin. Today, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) is still one of the highest accolades in science, yet very few female scientists achieve this honour.

Women were first admitted as fellows just over 50 years ago, but they still represent only 3.5 per cent of the current cohort. This figure has apparently provoked interest from the Equal Opportunities Commission and comment from a number of British female scientists. Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, suggests that women are effectively excluded from the Royal Society, which she claims suffers from "institutional sexism".

But these claims fail to address the real problems. The percentage of female professors in science (5.2 per cent, or 3.8 per cent excluding clinical medicine) is remarkably similar to the figure for female fellows of the Royal Society. This suggests that admission of women to the Royal Society reflects the tiny proportion of women who reach the highest positions in scientific research. On the other hand, women make up 25 per cent of lecturers and 65 per cent of researchers in science. The problem is, therefore, more fundamental and will not be solved by positive discrimination by the Royal Society.

Interestingly, similar accusations of sexism have been levelled against funding bodies that award research grants. But analysis by funding bodies in the UK reveals that female applicants are slightly more successful than men - there are just fewer of them.

Claims of sexism within male-dominated bodies such as the Royal Society might have been well founded in the past, but the situation is now rather different.

Like Lady Greenfield, I am not a FRS, so cannot comment on the procedures for making and considering nominations for an FRS. I was, however, supported by Royal Society Research Fellowships (which provide funding for salaries, usually of younger scientists) for almost ten years, the most formative years of my career. For the past four years I have served on one of the society's committees to allocate such fellowships and I have seen no evidence of sexism - only extensive support for scientists irrespective of gender, race, belief or background. There might be individuals within the Royal Society with unpalatable views on women within the profession - scientists have faults just like everyone else. But this is a world apart from the claim of "institutional sexism".

What is really holding women back? A "survey" I conducted of female colleagues, suggested that virtually none had suffered sexual discrimination, though some felt that their male colleagues were more "aggressive and outspoken" and therefore more effective. Many did, however, feel disadvantaged and their comments related almost exclusively to family issues.

Most successful scientists work more than 60 hours a week and travel to conferences and meetings around the world. None of this fits well with raising a family. Even a short period of maternity leave can have a serious impact on a scientific career: a high proportion of the most successful female scientists do not have children.

The Royal Society has, in fact, been among the leaders in trying to tackle these problems. It has established Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships, which offer support with flexibility aimed at encouraging women. Each successful applicant is assigned a senior mentor to guide her in her career. It is actions such as these, together with the work of groups such as Wise (Women in Science and Engineering) and the Athena project that will gradually help women succeed in science.

Positive discrimination, lowering the criteria for admission of women to the Royal Society and cosmetic gestures such as changing the title of "Fellow" to something more politically correct will not help.

Nancy Rothwell is Medical Research Council research professor at the University of Manchester.

 

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