Attacks on the Royal Society Miss the Point

This post was originally posted at ScienceGrrl.

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. 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.

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.

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 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? I look forward to hearing their answers soon 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 burying its head in the sand.

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.



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13 Responses to Attacks on the Royal Society Miss the Point

  1. Sian says:

    At a Women in Mathematics event a few weeks ago, I asked the EPSRC rep about success rates broken down by gender and apparently they simply don’t collect that sort of information at all, at least for the maths-based applications.

    I also asked specifically what they do to deal with the issue of unconscious bias, but it seemed like she hadn’t even heard of the issue — she started talking about conflicts of interest instead! Even when I clarified what the issue was, the impression I got was that it’s simply not something they consider when dealing with mathematics grant and fellowship applications.

    Considering that EPSRC is one of the only routes to funding for pure mathematics in the UK, I guess it’s no wonder that the area remains stubbornly male-dominated — which is then reflected in the RS fellows list!

  2. Michael Kenward says:

    Yes. It is lazy journalism to bang on about the FRS and its election of women. I know, I was that lazy journalist. More than 20 years ago it was an easy way to come up with a story in a slow news week.

    But the “election” of fellows – at both the RS and the Royal Academy of Engineering – is an opportunity to revisit an issue that must remain in people’s minds.

    Maybe a better story would be to write about the successful new FRSs.

    By the way, the observation that “the headline will have provided fodder for those who love to hate the Royal Society” highlights another perennial issue. Writers hate it when a subeditor saddles them with an inaccurate headline in the pursuit of sensation. Nature is not alone in perpetrating this crime against humanity, even though it should know better.

    Nice idea to pursue the Research Councils. Don’t stop there. Finger any and every organisation that has influence in this arena. For example, the Wellcome Trust is as big and powerful as some Research Councils. Where does it stand on this?

  3. Plan ahead says:

    Ditto. In our department we go out of our way to recruit female students, including holding workshops in the summer, visiting schools, etc. Yet by the time girls reach high school they have been conditioned not to follow a STEM career so our efforts are mostly lost. A lazy journalist could sweep in and flag our dismal percentage of female students. It makes for a good headline, but nothing else.

    p.s. our department is above average in percentage of female faculty members, so our efforts are multi-pronged and hopefully they will make a difference in the long term. In the short term though the results can be quite demoralizing.

  4. Scientist says:

    The problem is so systemic that it needs to be tackled at all ages, levels, and angles possible. For example, in my college our dept has the highest % of women. This isn’t saying much, and even with that, we have subtle and blatant sexism occur constantly. It is especially strong and ugly when it comes to hiring decisions. I really think 99% of it is unconscious. My colleagues need education on this topic badly. Yet, that is never going to happen, due mostly to the budget, and administrators who also don’t see a need for change in this arena.

    HR came and gave us a talk. Told us we need to report absolutely anything. But in the small world of academia, how do you do this without harming the victim? HR claims they can prevent retribution but they cannot. Say you have a Ph.D. student, female, who is blatantly being treated badly, can be clearly linked to her professor’s gender bias. If I report this, after she comes to me to talk about it, (not to report it but just to have someone else to talk to about it and help her get through what she is going through), then he will be investigated, end up quite mad at me, and especially the student. Can you imagine what her letters of recommendation are going to be like from him? how will she ever get the tenure-track job she wants? Just the verbal rumors alone in our small world would be enough to end her career right here. In addition to the unconscious bias that she will deal with which will make it much more difficult to get that job, speaking out about this would definitely end her career in academia. Other male-dominated departments would be wary of hiring her. After all, she may be a trouble maker right?

    So… these types of things just continue. How do you stop it? If your administration, and your peers don’t recognize this, don’t see any reason to change, then it just continues. (BTW, I have spoken out about it more than once, and I have received retaliation from many levels for doing so. I have learned my lesson that no one wants this to change)

    These are the things that we deal with every day. It starts in early in life and is present at every level. The difference is that once you’ve invested some significant number of years in advanced education the losses are greater than if you had given up on this career track early in life. I think some of the smartest women see this early on and CHOOSE not to face this. No wonder the numbers are not there. There are also very capable, very smart women who get to the tenure track point and realize that it just isn’t worth it. There are other careers out there with less pain in which you can lead a more balanced life.

    It will take a lot more work than just electing more Fellows before this problem is lessened.

  5. Plan ahead says:

    I think some of the smartest women see this early on and CHOOSE not to face this.

    Each person can make their own decision, but I really see no evidence that discrimination in academia is higher than in the real world. If anything, it’s the reverse. For example maternity leave policies and tenure clock policies are often best in academia than any where else in the private sector.

    We have a long way to go and as you say there is a lot of unconscious bias, which in a way makes it even harder to tackle. However, running away from the challenge, to me, doesn’t look like an option in this case since discrimination seems pervasive across all careers and professions.

  6. Michael Kenward
    I am not sufficiently familiar with Wellcome’s processes, or indeed any of the biomedical charities, to know how well or badly they perform on this front so I didn’t feel competent to point a finger at them (or give them a cheer).
    Maybe someone can advise?

    Those senior staff who observe bad behaviour need to pull up their colleagues wherever it occurs (see here). However, in the case of grant-awarding bodies the situation is different from the one you describe and should involve no danger to any one for pointing things out. A senior colleague of mine sent me an email on the back of this blog saying “I’ve recently waded in when I became aware of a particular instance of inappropriate practice that falls under ‘unconscious bias'” – that is the best way for things slowly but surely to be stamped out.

    • Scientist says:

      Yes I was fortunate enough to be on a funding decision board where I was able to step up and fix an instance where a young woman was not going to be funded. I was and still am pleased that it turned out well for her, and I hope others in the room learned something that day. But…. I have not been asked back since! (that was over 10 yrs ago).

  7. Bill Harvey says:

    One part of this problem is that the assessment process in the UK is set up very firmly as competitor review. There is always at least one person on any panel who sees all money given to anyone else as money he can no longer expect to get. They are often (for obvious reasons) the most powerful person on the panel. In all assessment processes we need to get away from this. As a minimum, that means that panels should always be chaired and preferably managed by people who have a vested interest in distributing money broadly. That means they must be employed to do the job and not involved in any form of competition with those being assessed.

    Incidentally that also applies to REF, teaching assessment, and for those of us in Engineering, Moderation from our institutions. All too often, in that case, the assessment is based on. “they are not doing what I do. One of us must be wrong and it definitely isn’t me, 0/10”

  8. kmt says:

    Certainly the UK research councils need to consider the impact of their processes on those they fund (or more those they do not fund). For instance I was recently told that EPSRC’s policy of offering postdoctoral fellowships in very few limited areas is apparently because they believe this promotes excellence: the truly excellent scientists will have got themselves permanent posts and so won’t need a postdoctoral fellowship stepping stone (the rest, presumably, are expected to ship out of academia). In my opinion, however, the policy promotes *mobility* as much as excellence: generally permanent opportunities are limited if only considering one location, and incomers are usually preferred anyway.

    I wonder which groups are most affected by mobility issues? Looking at my own institution it seems to be postdocs with young family (disproportionately but not entirely female), or whose partners are the main breadwinner and therefore determine where they live (again, it is more often a woman who is the lower earner). I’m sure many of these people are also excellent scientists…

  9. Former ECR says:

    I agree entirely about research councils. I had a similar experience as an ECR. A grant proposal of mine was given the highest possible grades by the reviewers, but still rejected. This was in the days when panels were not neccessarily discouraged from overturning reviewers’ decisions. Anyway, both I and my university were mystified by this. But eventually we found out- strictly off record of course- that the panel had had the same ‘this is a young woman we have never heard of and we are not sure she can lead a big grant’ conversation. Thus it was turned down.

    This had a negative effect on my career in comparison with a male ECR, appointed at the same time, with similar level of experience, who got funding (albeit from a different council, in a totally different area). It also affected my confidence, and willingness to apply for further funding; whereas he, perfectly understandably, felt quite the opposite. Perhaps I should not moan too much. We both got chairs in the end. But it took me quite a lot longer to build my track record, as a result.

    Since then I have served on panels, and I have never seen any statistics presented about differential application and success rates in terms of gender. I have also never come across any training in unconscious, or any other sort, of bias, which I think should apply to both panel members and reviewers. It might not neccesarily change the outcomes, but at least panels should be made to think about what they are doing and perhaps even why.

  10. John Byrne says:

    On an angle to this, you might be interested in my analysis of the new fellows in terms of the % with Wikipedia biographies, overall and by gender, at

    John Byrne, Wikimedian-in-Residence, Royal Society, but expressing purely personal views.

  11. Allo V Psycho says:

    Could a factor also be the Research Councils’ preference for programme grants over project grants? In a world where the frank prejudice of the past still impacts on the structure of the present, those at very senior levels are perhaps more likely to be male, and those ‘up and coming’ to be female. If a requirement for many previous large succesful grants (i.e. a large team) is an essential to be awarded a grant, then perhaps the historical unfairnesses are being perpetuated. If there was return to project grants (MRC, are you listening?) was instantiated, then this might favour the younger, less empowered, researchers (whom I hope have a more appropriate gender balance).

    CoI I referee grants for several bodies (including Wellcome). I’m male, older, and relatively succesful in getting grants for myself. I’m thinking very hard about my unconscious biases (and those of others) as a result of reading this article.

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