Attacks on the Royal Society miss the point

This is a guest post by Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Cambridge University’s Gender Equality champion.

New Royal Society fellows – fewer women than in the US

Another year, another occasion to thump the Royal Society for the make-up of its new fellows. This time it was Nature that screamed ‘Royal Society still trails the US National Academy in female members’, thereby managing to convey shifty behaviour by the RS. In fact eight of this year’s new fellows (50 in total) are women.

Royal Society Coat of Arms

“Nullius in Verba” The Royal Society’s motto translates as “Take nobody’s word for it”

Read the article and it is clear that the Society is hardly sitting on its hands. This year, for instance, it has involved some of its early career University Research Fellows in helping to identify strong female candidates (amongst other categories under-represented in the fellowship). It also has a temporary nominating group consisting of fellows who work hard throughout the year to identify appropriate women and ensure they get nominated for election. I know, because I sit on this. Heads of departments and vice chancellors are regularly chased to try to get them to nominate women too.

Nevertheless, the reality is the pool of senior women in STEM remains stubbornly small. Elections are – allowing for fluctuations – in line with the numbers in the pool. The pool of senior women in the USA is slightly larger, so their NAS’s higher numbers are simply in line with having a larger cohort to work with. Again, the article did admit this, but the headline will have provided fodder for those who love to hate the Royal Society.

An easy but irrelevant target

To be honest, I get irritated with this attitude. Year on year these attacks continue (this was my response 2 years ago, where you can learn much more about the election process itself). Yet, if the pool is the size it is, what do these journalists who annually pour out their scorn expect to be done – lower the bar? I find that a horrible thought and so does every female scientist I have asked. To be elected and then told that it was ‘only because you are a woman’, or even to suspect that that might be the reason, would hardly confer satisfaction let alone honour. And it would not bring any credit to the Society either.

When I expressed my annoyance about the piece’s headline over Twitter I received some very negative comments. What I find particularly disappointing is that, by focussing on an easy if irrelevant target, journalists fail to open up the debate to where the problems actually sit. It is rather like the recent Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report implying that the low numbers of women in academic science is the fault of their institutions, instead of looking more broadly at the landscape in which they work. As I argued previously in the context of this report, I would like to suggest that the many STEM departments who are now engaged with Athena Swan are beginning to make inroads into the problem, albeit painfully slowly. My own department, recently and proudly awarded an Athena Swan Gold award, knows that even that recognition means we are simply on the foothills of getting genuine equality for all. But we have an action plan and I believe we will hold to it.

The UK Research Councils

However, there are other parts of the academic ecosystem which need scrutiny and which have perhaps escaped such investigation for too long. By this I mean the UK Research Councils. They have, it is true, collectively produced a statement of what they expect from institutions they fund, which is no bad thing. But they have done far too little to explore the consequences of their own processes on those they fund. I am probably particularly sensitive to this now I am involved with the Scientific Council of the European Research Council, including sitting on its Gender Balance Working Group. This group reports regularly to the whole council and statistics on success rate by gender, along with many other stats, are automatically scrutinised (I’ve discussed this here). Do any of the UK’s Research Councils do the same? I am not aware of this being so. In fact, it is only recently that any statistics on female success rates were published. These were aggregated across the whole of the RCUK remit and made somewhat dismal reading. So what will they be doing about this? Optimistically, I look forward to hearing their answers soon.

NERC has recently introduced unconscious bias training for its panels and I am told that at least one other research council plans on swiftly following suit. They all should. But even this only deals with panel members. There is another place in the process where (un)conscious bias may slip in and no one does anything about it: the referee reports. I have heard too many women say that referees’ comments amount to a thinly disguised version of ‘I am grand professor X and this is a young woman whom I’ve never met or heard of so I don’t believe she can do what she says’. I haven’t seen the reports, I can’t be sure that such an interpretation is correct, but it tallies too much with what one knows in other circumstances. If the kinds of distinctions are made in referees’ reports that turn up in letters of reference – and why wouldn’t they? – then the evidence panels make their decisions on can be inherently flawed and slanted to disadvantage women.

Unlike the institutions which are required to examine all their statistics about appointments, exams etc to look for evidence of gender bias as they apply for Athena Swan awards , research councils have not been checking, or at least publishing, success rates by gender. It would be very interesting to know whether grants are being awarded in proportion to those who apply. Unless you believe women are inherently thicker, they should be (assuming they are not being disadvantaged by lack of mentorship or support as they write their proposals of course. I accept there are many intertwined factors!). So, I challenge the Research Councils to do a better job of monitoring and, if there are significant differences, to try to work out why and to do something about it. The ERC may be trying but most certainly hasn’t got it cracked. This is not going to be easy but that’s no reason for RCUK collectively to bury its head in the sand.

And the Royal Society?

Why is any of this relevant to the Royal Society? Because, if women are being systematically disadvantaged when they apply for grants their progression to the top will be handicapped. The pool of senior women from which candidates can be nominated and elected will not grow as fast as it should if unconscious bias elsewhere is holding them back. I would urge journalists to think a little harder about where the pinch-points are in our systems and not simply go for an easy but irrelevant target.

Athene Donald @AtheneDonald