Last autumn there were some shocking figures released by the Royal Society regarding the new cohort of University Research Fellows (URFs): only two out of 43 were women. Many of us were very disappointed and depressed by these figures. I wrote about them at the time , as did the Royal Society’s President Paul Nurse on his own blog. But I’m pleased to say shock and depression translated into action. The Royal Society has conducted a thorough review of last year’s process. The review team consisted of 3 Council members, two women and a man. I was not involved but as a Council member myself I have followed the analysis and outcomes with great interest; they were presented at various times so that Council could properly discuss them and make their own input into how things could be moved forward. Their report was published yesterday, along with a further blogpost from the President.
The short answer is no smoking gun was found. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone behaved improperly or that panels did anything other than what they thought was the best they could. Nevertheless, the outcomes clearly indicate that all is not necessarily well in the URF ecosystem. Perhaps this should not surprise us.
The first issue is that the numbers of women applying are too low. We could blame the women for being too timid. Why aren’t the women more like (some) men, bumptious and always willing to put themselves forward? This must surely be the wrong way to think about things, a way that amounts to a deficit model of gender. If women aren’t putting themselves forward in proportion to the numbers in the potential pool we have a problem, and the women aren’t the problem. The onus must be on the mentors, sponsors, heads of department, colleagues and friends to tap bright young researchers – of whichever gender – and encourage them to apply. Clearly at the moment this isn’t happening effectively enough. Women should not be put off by applying by their biological clocks either: the URF scheme has for a number of years offered great flexibility in terms of taking maternity (and now parental) leave and working part-time. I do hope potential applicants read the smallprint if they need convincing on this front.
I have described this as the first problem. In many ways this is the absolute fundamental problem and, for all the President in his blog is calling on Fellows to do their bit in encouraging young female researchers to apply, it really is up to the entire community. There must be many excellent potential applicants who do not have an FRS within range who could do this encouraging. Maybe the community doesn’t know what the standard/ typical CV of a successful applicant looks like; how can they judge whether their junior colleague stands a chance of success and are reluctant to encourage in case this leads to failure? The Royal Society is committing to putting some examples of successful applicants on to their website to resolve this issue. It can only be an indicator but it may help individuals to work out whether they should throw their hat into the ring – or encourage others so to do.
Finally, I am sure there are those who are deeply suspicious that, since the Royal Society has always been a pale and male (if not stale) institution the fault must surely lie in the predominantly pale and male panels. It is quite possible that the panels do indeed judge women harder than men. All the evidence points to this tending to happen quite unconsciously in many different situations, regardless of whether it is men or women who are doing the judging. But there is nothing to indicate anything conscious or deliberate going on. Every Royal Society committee I have sat on in the last few years has taken gender seriously and, although I haven’t sat on an URF panel, I see no reason to believe they will not have done so too. That doesn’t alter the fact that letters of reference for shortlisted candidates may have been gendered; again the evidence is clear this tends to happen across the board. (So another plea to the wider community: think how you write letters of reference, for URF positions or anything else.) For all these reasons the Royal Society is also committing itself to providing training for Chairs and panels to remind them of the issues and to be aware of others who may be less conscious of the concerns. As I proposed before, I would still like to see observers attending panels who may also act as neutral consciences, a matter that is still under consideration. In particular I believe this might make it easier to interweave results from different panels.
I have, as I say, watched the debate going on within the Royal Society and I have discussed it with the President and other senior figures. I am, as readers of this blog will no doubt have concluded for themselves, anxious about gender issues and I don’t believe I am easily hoodwinked. Everything I have seen occurring in the months since the story first broke in September indicates to me that this genuinely is a matter of huge concern to the Society and one they are determined to do all they can to crack. There is not the slightest hint they wish to sweep the problem under the carpet. It is important to reflect (as the report spells out very clearly) on average over the years the success rate has been broadly comparable for male and female applicants. 2014 may have been appalling in one sense, but it is also completely out of line with prior results; it remains the case that a small(ish) statistical blip could account for the poor outcome for women without needing any conspiracy theories.
I applaud the genuine soul-searching that the President and others have gone through rather than some superficial mock hand-wringing by the collective organisation the usual detractors might have expected. Of crucial concern will be what happens next. So, if you know a bright female early career researcher, what are you going to do? Will you be tapping them on the shoulder, drawing the URF competition to their attention and saying ‘go for it’. Or will you instead say, ‘oh don’t bother the Royal Society doesn’t usually appoint women so go and bury your head in the sand?’ I know what I hope senior researchers will do. Unless they do take the former course of action not the latter we will never see an improvement in the application pool. And without larger numbers applying women will continue to be awarded these fellowships in depressingly small numbers absolutely irrespective of anything the Royal Society may attempt to do internally.