The Royal Society and Diversity

It is very easy to pillory long-established organisations for being insufficiently diverse. As a member of Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal Society, I see it all the time. It is assumed these venerable institutions are ‘bad’. It is true that in both cases only the last 60 years or so have seen these entities fully admit women out of their total lives of 801 and 351 years respectively. However, working closely with both on gender issues, and diversity more generally, it strikes me that actually both are very conscious of the impact of their history on their current membership and performance and are actively working hard to change things. But, accomplishing this will take time. Indeed I think that, because they are very conscious of the baggage of history, they are probably much more concerned and active than many younger organisations. This post is about the Royal Society, but I will just say in passing and in defence of my university’s activities that to the best of my knowledge Cambridge is the only Russell Group University that both carries out and openly publishes its Equal Pay Review. It may not be a perfect performance, but we are willing to share it in the interests of transparency. (In a similar vein, as the THE pointed out only last week, Cambridge has been transparently publishing its ethical guidelines regarding donations for the last 10 years, but that’s a different story.)

This post is prompted by a talk I am giving at an Inside Government meeting later this week on Widening Participation for Women in STEM, representing the Royal Society. I sit on the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Network, EDAN for short, and each year they gather statistics on the Society’s performance. I think these are considerably better than most of you might imagine.  You may be familiar with the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in Verba, roughly translated as ‘Don’t take anyone’s word for it’. In other words, for 350 years it has been looking at the evidence, and this applies just as much to its own performance as to the activities of its individual members in science. So, it has been scrutinising its performance against benchmarks of the population and looking at the progression in time. I’ll just pick out a few headline figures.

Statistics for 2010 from the Royal Society

The first challenge is to identify what the appropriate benchmark figures are for different stages of the ‘academic career’. This is hard enough to do for gender, even harder for ethnic minorities or the disabled; suffice it to say these last two are something the RS also has its eye on, probably increasingly so, but I won’t discuss them here. (A fairly recent study in the US shows just how bad the situation is there for black scientists. ) It is obvious that in the general public the percentage of women is essentially 50%.  As the first chart shows this benchmark is being met and, for student visitors, even slightly exceeded. For the scientific community overall an average figure of 30% is used for the gender benchmark, based on the average of figures for female postdocs and lecturers across the scientific disciplines (not including engineering, which one might argue one should, but also excluding medicine which would shift things in the opposite direction).  One can argue about the precise value this benchmark should take, but as the chart shows the figures again are healthy using two different measures: attendance at meetings and successful University Research Fellows.  From the second chart (note the ‘A side’ means the physical sciences and the ‘B side’ the Biological in the terminology of the RS) it can be seen that for 2010 – the year this data was collected – women actually have a higher success rate than men in the URF competion. Should we worry about this? Probably not yet, but in due course, if this imbalance persists, one might want to explore the reasons for this further. Nevertheless, the situation from the perspective of the pipeline of women moving through the system is encouraging. The one figure where the numbers fall below the benchmark is in terms of speakers/organisers for meetings held at the Royal Society. There is a policy that when outline proposals are considered by the relevant internal committee, if there is a dearth of women speakers in the programme the organisers are asked to consider whether this is appropriate (for the particular topic) and if they can’t justify their slate of candidates they will be asked to reconsider. Clearly, this is not yet having a significant enough effect. Again, this is something to keep an eye on.

2010 statistics for women applying for University Research Fellowships

The final statistics in the first chart relate to the ‘established’ or senior section of the community. With around 10% of all science professors being women, this is the benchmark figure being used. Elections to the fellowship are in line with this, although there is a marked difference between the biological and physical sciences side; it won’t take much thought to work out on which side there are more women fellows elected. It’s not yet good enough, and with a figure of only 5.6% women amongst the fellowship as a whole there is a way to go, but just because of the historical imbalance don’t assume no one worries about this.

For election to the fellowship, in other words to become an FRS, or indeed to win any of the medals and awards, you – rather obviously – have to be nominated. So, if there is to continue to be an increase in the number of women in the ranks, people must continue to nominate them.  As I have written previously, it seems remarkably easy to not to ‘remember the women’. The leadership in the Royal Society are so worried about this, and have been since the days when Lord May was the President in 2000-2005, that they have taken a number of steps to draw attention to the issue. So, heads of departments and Vice Chancellors are encouraged to consider putting names forward, and some of the Officers have gone to meetings at the various professional bodies to remind people that it is to some extent up to them to propose names. Even people who aren’t FRS’s themselves, and so cannot formally nominate anyone, can make suggestions of high flyers to the Officers. Historically this is also relevant to people from smaller less well-known institutions as well as minorities of any kind.

Finally, I should say not only is the RS really aware of the issues and trying to do what it can to improve the situation, since I was elected I have always found the place friendly and welcoming, probably not what people might expect.

So, historically bad though the Royal Society may have been, I do get rather fed up with the constant sniping about how unrepresentative it is. Election to the fellowship only happens rather late in life, with the average age upon election probably being mid-50s, though that is a guess (and does appear to vary from field to field); of course it won’t be transformed overnight. But I am not a believer in quotas, and I am not a believer in lowering the bar just to speed up that transformation. It will only weaken the position of women who might be elected under such systems.  Before people snipe they should be very sure their own organisation is spotless, and doing everything it can to facilitate women’s progression.

Finally, it is worth noting something that hasn’t yet received much coverage, although David Willetts announced it formally in a speech a few weeks ago: BIS is giving £200k pa for the next four years to the Royal Society to address some of the diversity issues, paralleling money given to the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the case of the Royal Society exactly what the money will be used for is still very much under discussion, and it is also clear that it is to cover diversity in all its facets – socio-economic, ethnic and gender – but further progress and action can be expected.  Monitoring statistics is all very well, it is a step in the right direction and indicates where action is most needed, but new concrete and broad-ranging activities should help to spread the word: diversity matters and the Royal Society is set to play a key role in improving the landscape. I hope it will – as some have said it should – take a more prominent leadership role in diversity across all the sciences and continue to disseminate best practice. But it’s not all bad news and, as the statistics show, its own house is in moderately good shape.

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