Prizes for Women? Again? What more can I possibly have to say, having written twice (here and here) in different veins on this subject already. Tomorrow I chair the jury to judge this year’s L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science UK and Ireland Fellowships, and the truth is I think there is still much to say, both about the specifics of this prize and what it implies for the community and the women who will come out of tomorrow evening’s ceremony £15,000 the richer. That anything needs to be said at all simply reflects the imbalance that persists in the number of women progressing up the scientific career ladder and the underlying reasons for this. These prizes are about celebration, an opportunity to highlight successful women at an early stage in their careers and to create a network of visible role models and ambassadors. The women whom we will be interviewing are all capable of being the leaders of tomorrow. We have narrowed the field down from 229 applicants, to a longlist of 21 and then further narrowed this list down to the shortlist of 8 we will meet in person. Getting down to this final group was tough, because so many of the applications were really strong; women who had followed a multitude of paths, some with ease, some having to overcome major obstacles to reach their current positions. It is a shame that so many necessarily are disappointed, but that is the case with any prize or in some senses it isn’t worth having. So, when the winners are announced tomorrow I can say with certainty they will be exceptional women, and I sincerely hope they find the prizes facilitate their career progression.
So much for motherhood and apple pie statements, what more needs to be said? First of all, there are some dangers in what I have written above for the women who win. If we expect them to be ambassadors, as I’m sure they will be proud to be, we are putting a burden on them that standard awards do not impose. We should recognize that for what it is. When my own department was preparing for its Athena Swan application, it was noted that women (at all stages) do a disproportionately large amount of outreach activity. Anecdotally – or at least I cannot immediately produce firm evidence – across higher education women do more of the pastoral and tutoring side of things as well than men. It could be argued that women do this voluntarily, that they don’t need to do it. But I wonder. Do we need to train women to say no, but also train the wider community that women saying no must be treated in exactly the same way as men saying no? As I described recently, women standing up for themselves don’t seem to prompt an identical reaction – in men or women – to men doing so. Is it reasonable to ask women, because of the crying need for role models, to take on this additional ambassadorial task when they are still trying to establish their careers? On balance I think the answer is yes, not least because the enhanced visibility will help their careers, one hopes at least as much as the time taken away from their research may hinder. Furthermore, there will be many skills they will be picking up which will stand them in good stead for the years ahead: skills such as fending off probing questions during interviews, mentoring others and talking to school children – all things I would imagine will come their way in the months ahead. Taken in a positive spirit, just think how good the latter two will look on CV’s (incidentally, the last looks like ‘impact’ doesn’t it, if they choose to portray it that way), and how useful the first on that list will be when it comes to interviews for permanent positions. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that there is a loss in time, even if a gain in opportunity.
Secondly, I have indicated that we had a fantastic pool of applicants from which to select our final 8. You might think that means ‘problem solved’, we have got ourselves into a position where there is an excellent supply of first class women. So why am I still sounding off about the ‘problem’ when it no longer exists? Without wishing to make the simplistic assumption that the problem really is solved when we reach a 50:50 balance of men and women at every stage of the career ladder, I think it is clear we have not yet reached a situation where all women are able to fulfil their potential. If we had, I don’t think we would still be talking about the leaky pipeline, but the reality is the leaks remain manifest. It seems to me that a world in which in 2010, women made up less than 20% of the applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships on the physical sciences side (charmingly known as the A-side within the Royal Society; no doubt there is some good historical reason for this nomenclature with which I have never caught up), has some way to go in terms of a level playing field. I use this figure as a comparator because it corresponds to the approximate career stage of the women we are looking at for the FWIS prizes. Indeed it was very clear from our longlist that physical sciences were very much in the minority in our own applications, a fact that tallies with the significantly higher figure of 35% of URF applications on (yes, you guessed it) the B-side of the biological sciences.
However, there is an interesting corollary about the URF’s success rates which, on the statistically dubious basis of figures for the single year of 2010 which I have to hand, actually showed that women were more successful than men in obtaining a fellowship. There are a couple of obvious conclusions that might be drawn from this (and I have no idea if either of them actually apply, because more work would need to be done to test them). Firstly, that women interview better than men and so are more likely to be successful; or secondly, that the field of women who have persisted to this career stage have self-selected down to a much greater extent so that only the really brilliant and/or confident are applying for URF’s. The men, on the other hand, may be more inclined to stick around – as the recent RSC/IOP postdoctoral survey suggested – whether they have much hope of future success as independent researchers or not, but they are nevertheless willing to chance their arm with an application for a fellowhip. It will be interesting to see how these various numbers change over the coming years, and I know the Royal Society will be monitoring things closely.
So, I don’t for one moment think we have yet reached a point where women-only prizes have lost their importance and function. I am quite sure that tomorrow the jury will be impressed by the quality of the talks and interviews we will have with the shortlisted 8 in the FWIS competition this year. I am equally sure we will have a fiendishly difficult time coming up with the final winners. I hope the eight we meet find the experience rewarding and that the eventual winners relish the responsibilities that come with the awards – as well as the cash.
Given the title of this post, it might be worth drawing readers’ attention to an interview I did recently for the Browser, in which I was asked to select 5 books ‘for women in science’.