Is the Royal Society Treating Women Fairly?

This year’s announcement regarding successful applicants for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) has been hailed with deep suspicion by many. Out of 43 awards only 2 went to women and there is no getting around the fact that this is a dismal result. Paul Nurse, the President has published a statement spelling out, not only his disappointment at this outcome, but also giving the statistics since 2010 (see below). There are many ways of trying to unpick the data and the Society will be considering why this year women have been so spectacularly unsuccessful: Paul has called for an internal investigation and I will be very interested to see what the outcome is. As a Council member I have asked Paul that Council discuss this situation, and I am not alone in making this request, although it may be wise to wait to discuss the results once the investigation has been completed.

URF figures

As the table shows, in previous years the percentage of women appointed has been essentially in line with the percentage applying; indeed in 2010 women did rather better than that and had a significantly higher success rate than the men. In succeeding years the success rates for men and women have been broadly similar, that is until this year. I would like to think this is just a fluctuation, but it certainly warrants examination.

However, while that internal investigation is being carried out, and while the community is lambasting the Royal Society, it is perhaps worth pointing out a few points for reflection by all. Firstly, as previous years’ data show, I don’t think the Royal Society can be said to be permanently showing deep prejudice towards women applicants. I have in the past been accused essentially of being an apologist for the Royal Society. I don’t think I am. I think it is simply the case that being a female fellow I have a better idea of what is going on than many outside, who tend to assume something as venerable as the Royal Society is likely to be so ‘Establishment’ it must be full (as its portraiture is) of bewigged old men who want to treat it as a gentleman’s club. Not so. I have always found it welcoming and it has offered me many interesting opportunities (see here and here) to participate and contribute to its work, not tried to exclude me from its ‘corridors of power’, as it were. I have encountered many more hostile atmospheres in which to work than Carlton House Terrace! I should also point out that I was myself one of the very first tranche of URF’s appointed back in 1983. I have no idea how many women were appointed that year, but I don’t recall being the only woman (although I do recall my fellow URF’s including a lot of men).

So what is going wrong? And where in the system?

If we break down the application process into its component parts we can identify the different stages where things may be going wrong. All that follows can only be speculation, but I hope quite well-informed speculation. Firstly, do women apply in proportion to their numbers in the pool? It’s hard to tell, because of course the numbers cover all disciplines and physics, for instance, will have a very different percentage from zoology (biomedical scientists are likely to apply to the Henry Dale Fellowship competition, which is why both numbers overall and the percentage of women has dropped since their introduction in 2012). My suspicion is that not all the talented women out there are given enough encouragement to apply and, lacking such encouragement they may feel that they aren’t good enough. So my first recommendation (which, like all of my recommendations, is highly personal) to the whole community is:

  • Look at the smart female postdocs working around you and be sure to encourage them if you feel they ought to be applying. Don’t assume someone else will do it. Do it yourself be you a VC, a Dean or PVC, a head of department, supervisor or simply a colleague or friend. Encourage them at the very least to seek advice from more experienced heads or those who may carry out a preliminary sift within an organisation. Stereotypically, all the evidence is women are not keen on putting themselves forward without encouragement. At the very least this may mean women wait longer before ‘daring’ to submit an application.

If a young researcher does apply, then those around them should also take responsibility for looking at their applications. It is tough when first setting out to know how best to write up one’s CV and proposal to make the best of what you have. If no one reads the application, is the case being undersold? Again, this should be a responsibility of all those around the young researcher but I fear too often women may hold back from asking for such help for all kinds of reasons. This is something outwith the Royal Society’s control: it lies, again, with the community, so my second recommendation is:

  • People should take responsibility for reading applications and giving advice. I would be far from confident that men and women receive equal support and advice at this stage, not because anyone intends it to be so, but just from cultural patterns of behaviour.

One thing I hope the Royal Society will do is consider whether the way the application form is structured might in some way disadvantage certain groups of applicants. The ERC decided to modify its forms to try to ensure that everyone wrote up their CV/track records in the same sort of way, to reduce the blagging and the differences in customary style between different parts of the EU. It hasn’t solved the gender difference (see here) but it probably reduced it somewhat. For the Royal Society, I would recommend:

  • An examination of the application form and guidance notes should be carried out to check that no implicit biases are obviously being introduced at this stage.

Whether it is possible to carry out blind reviewing at this stage, I’m not sure. I’ve never sat on any of the panels or observed them in action at long- or short-listing stage. Applications, I believe, could not be anonymous because of the need to demonstrate track record through publication lists etc, but possibly first names could deliberately not be requested to be written out in full. However, as we proceed through the different stages of the selection process to interviewing there are some other places where problems may arise as much from community behaviour as the Royal Society’s.

Letters of reference, for instance, are too often full of subtly gendered words. If you don’t believe me, look at this article or read my previous writings (here and here) on the subject. If you write letters of reference for an applicant, are you prone to describe a woman as a good team player and excellent at looking after the project students but a man (with exactly the same characteristics) as original and innovative? Too many of us use different sets of words to describe men and women quite unconsciously, but it can have a devastating effect on the women’s chances. It is all very well to give unconscious bias training to panels – and it should definitely  be done – but it is very difficult to override a negative impression given by a letter of reference because of the careless use of words, even if there may be a suspicion that this is has occurred. Hence my recommendation four is:

  • Anyone asked to write a letter of reference, for the URF competition or anything else, should think carefully about the words they use to describe the person concerned.

Women are also known to be less likely to be cited, a fact that HEFCE should bear in mind as it goes through its current discussions about the possible use of metrics when it comes to funding decisions. I have no real idea of why women should be less cited, but the evidence is there that this is the case. It would seem unnatural to suggest to the community that they should consciously go out of their way to cite work by someone simply because they are a woman, but perhaps this is what it would take to level this particular bit of the playing field. At the very least, panels should be very aware of the problem and not use metrics slavishly and without thought.  This is probably particularly important at long- and short-listing meetings.

In 2010, when interviews were introduced in the URF process, we had a bumper year for women. I naively thought that maybe all these cumulative unconscious microinequities were being overruled by their articulacy and ability to put their ideas across at interview. I saw that year’s data as demonstrating that all was well, but sadly this is clearly not the case. So I guess the Royal Society should look again at the interview process. Are all candidates being treated equally or were some panels prone to put individuals on the spot rather than genuinely find out their abilities? It will be hard to look at this retrospectively but it is something that needs to be thought about for future years.

I’m not aware there are observers at the panels in the way that Council members attend committees looking at fellowship elections; perhaps that could provide some way of normalising procedures between panels for the future and to check that nothing untoward is happening. That would be my personal next recommendation, along with unconscious bias training for the panels in advance.

  • The Royal Society should nominate observers to watch all the panels and comment on what they see and everyone involved should be required to have unconscious bias training.

In addition, if there were a group of observers they could be used to facilitate interweaving lists from different panels, because they would have seen what the relative strengths of the field are between mathematics and ecology, geophysics and developmental biology and so on. This would be a huge ask of some people but perhaps it is what is needed. In fact, such a group of observers might be asked to draw up the final list of names, given the rank-ordered list each panel produces.

I personally do not believe there are large, systematic problems, let alone collective ill-will direcgted at women, but clearly there are problems of some sort. I am sure I have failed to identify many possible issues that could be playing a role, because I haven’t spent enough time doing this. Some require more action outside the Society, some processess must be improved internally. At the end of the day we mustn’t think there is a fixed percentage of women that is ‘right’. It will fluctuate year by year and introducing some sort of quota would be anathema to candidates and the Society alike, I imagine. But equally we mustn’t assume that because nothing is grotesquely going astray (and even that is a dubious statement this year), there is nothing that can be done. Something could, should, indeed must be done.

There are no doubt many other suggestions people will want to make, and those who have either been through the process (particularly those interviewed) or sat on panels may have much useful hard evidence to adduce. My thoughts here are quick personal reflections and should not be taken as representing anyone other than myself. I hope that this year will, in the future, be seen to have been merely simply a statistical blip (although see this interesting post for how ‘blips’ can occur). If it is more than that even more soul-searching will be required.

Update October 6th 2014: An analysis by Rebecca Roisin considers different scenarios using simulations which provides some interesting context. Additionally, Julia Higgins discusses the issue on BBC Radio 4’s  Inside Science, suggesting that women may be seeking URF’s slightly earlier in their research career than men (directly after the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships they may have held, for instance) which could have the effect of making them look less strong if this factor isn’t properly accounted for. No doubt such possibilities will be looked at in depth by the internal investigation.


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12 Responses to Is the Royal Society Treating Women Fairly?

  1. Ben Sheldon says:

    Thanks very much for this thoughtful piece.

    First, just wanted to point out that the table on Paul Nurse’s blogpost has been corrected in several places compared to that above (most obviously revising down the proportion of female awards in 2010 from 37% to 33% and correcting the number of awards in 2014 to 43 (not 40)). The new version is at:

    I’m interested that you bring up the issue of the interview. This was a recurrent theme in discussions in my department this week, with the worry being that the perception of this interview (“going to London to be grilled by a dozen FRSs” as it is seen) is genuinely off-putting, and that it may have a disproportionately off-putting effect for those who are lacking self-esteem. If women are more likely to fall into that group then I think that needs careful thought and handling. I did have one conversation with a very bright female postdoc, about 2 years post PhD, so just the sort of person who should be being encouraged to think about this sort of application who simply said: “Oh, I couldn’t imagine myself doing that” with respect to the interview.

    I’m encouraged that the Royal Society responded so quickly in releasing some of the underlying data, but I think it would also be useful if more details of the process of assessment of applications is released. At the moment that’s all rather opaque: at what stage are external referees brought it, when (and how) are shortlists created, how are shortlists filtered to choose those to interview, and what is the make-up of interview panels are all things that could usefully be made more public (I’m not aware that they are).

  2. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Most interesting, thank you.

    There seems to be a general lack of recognition regarding women’s contributions and this unfortunate situation obtains , inter alia , at Cambridge’s Darwin College where one might have expected the female Master to encourage a proposal to offer an Honorary Fellowship to a female Nobel Prize winning alumnus, viz., Professor Elizabeth Blackburn (2009 Medicine).

  3. Kate Jeffery says:

    Thanks Athene for a thoughtful and explanatory piece, I was one of those deeply dismayed at this year’s URF figures and it is good to see that this is not going un-addressed by the RS.

    While this year may just be a blip (let’s hope so), I do think the RS and other organisations could be doing more to rule out bias in their own selection procedures. Proposals could be anonymised and reviewed for the simple quality of the science irrespective of track record – that might rule out bias on the part of reviewers and panel, and also the track record problem of women having fewer citations, having a harder time getting their papers in the top journals etc. If male and female proposals were scoring equally in blind reviews then one might want to look at whether track record is dragging women down, or whether it is bias in the unblinded proposal reviewing. Many questions to be asked… I’m glad the RS is taking this seriously.

    I wish journals themselves would do so – I see little evidence that these important vehicles for career development have much sense of how they might be contributing to the problem.

  4. Nancy Rothwell says:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. Like you I was an early Royal Society University Research Fellow (1984) and have followed and welcomed the Royal Society’s real efforts to support more women; never more so than under Paul Nurse’s leadership. I have to say that I have never felt discriminated against by the Royal Society based on gender-quite the opposite.

    I agree, there are some ‘old boys network’ retaining in all walks of life, but ever decreasing-thankfully. As a Council member of the Royal Society, like you-on a council with about 50% women, I know that the Royal Society is doing a great deal to encourage women. It can of course always do more. Our obligation must be to look at the root causes for inequality-not just in gender but also in ethnicity and in many other areas where our population is so poorly represented in the higher levels in science.

  5. Zita Martins says:

    Dear Athena,
    Thank you very much for the text. I am a (female) Royal Society URF and I would like to mention my experience on this. First, the interviews were introduced in the URF process in the 2008/2009 application (I submitted my proposal end of 2008 and was interviewed April 2009). Second, I must say I loved my URF interview! The questions were intelligent and very interesting, i.e. the panel understood the subject of my proposal, focusing not only on my proposal but also on the general research field. It gave me the chance to have a motivating interview and dialogue with the panel. I was treated fairly, felt no negative or positive discrimination, and that is extremely important as I like to be seen as a scientist, independently of being (or not) a female.

  6. Emilia says:

    Thank you Athene for your post. I was very much looking forward to see your comments on the URF selection process in regards to women. I’m a very fortunate RS fellow on the Dorothy Hodgkin scheme and I personally think this scheme is a fantastic recognition of women scientists, but it is only for these with caring commitments so many woman would still not be eligible for that scheme. I absolutely agree that woman need encouragement or at least support in applying for this very prestigeous fellowships as we often question ourself whether we are good enough. I have a feel that too much weight in the selection process is on the interview and this stage should be only the confirmation of someone’s excellence. I believe that people could be fantastic scientists, but maybe not the best speakers and maybe this applies more to women than men.

  7. Bill Harvey says:

    The numbers here are tiny. The differences are similarly small. There are several thousand others who are at a similar level but don’t apply. Of this tiny group, it really doesn’t matter who you choose so positive discrimination is not going to hurt. Those who miss will never know by how much or why. If they are good enough to make the short list their career is not going to be bighted by missing out. The need to encourage women is clear and vital.

  8. Clare Horsman says:

    Thank you, Athene, for this very balanced post. I am a part of the data in that table: I was shortlisted but not interviewed last year. I find this whole situation makes me feel deeply dispirited – and very, very angry. I feel I was duped into taking part in a process that was so heavily stacked against me. I applied in good faith that my proposal would be judged on its scientific merits, and those data tell me that did not happen. I was able to apply again this year, again putting in a non-trivial amount of work, picking through referee comments from last year (some of which had their own issues), and making a better application. Had I seen these data six weeks ago, I doubt I would have bothered applying again. Like most postdocs I have limited time to apply for jobs and get papers out. I don’t have the leisure to waste time on an application with a 2.7% success rate.

    While it’s good to see Paul Nurse commenting on these figures, and you make some excellent suggestions in this blog post, I think the most extraordinary feature of this situation hasn’t yet been commented on. Whatever happened to cause this skew away from women, a bigger problem is that it was not picked up on until the actual announcement. Nobody noticed that almost no women were getting though the stages. Nobody, for instance at the interviews, looked around and thought there was a problem. That, for me, is the real issue here, and the real way in which female applicants were not, and are not, treated fairly. There may be underlying systematic or personal prejudices going on in the committees; this may or may not be amenable to diversity training. Regardless of this, the real failure here was a failure to check that the numbers going through at each stage were proportionate. It was a lack of willingness to take care that female applicants were treated fairly. I think diversity training and so on is very important, but I would like to add my own proposal to yours above:

    * At each stage, if the proportion of female applicants progressing is lower than the proportion going into the round, the committee re-evaluates each rejected application by a female applicant to check that it was correctly not progressed. Data about unconscious bias should be re-emphasised at this point.

    I am very aware in all of this that the panels will be meeting in the next month or so to produce the first shortlist for this year’s round. From my point of view, the talk of thorough investigation and council discussions and gathering data over many years is of little relevance: what matters is how my application is going to be treated this year. It isn’t good enough to throw another year of applicants to the wolves to gather more data. Our lives and our careers aren’t statistics.

    • I understand your anger but I’m not going to agree with you that things were ‘stacked against women’ until the investigation is complete. In previous years the numbers going through each at stage were essentially in line with applications. If there was systematic stacking this year it means that 4 (I believe) committees independently did things all wrong. I agree it is deeply disheartening if no one spotted that the women were falling disproportionately by the wayside at each stage, but again I simply do not know if panel members or chairs didn’t actually raise this at some point.

      Your recommendation makes a lot of sense; I have come across other selection processes that do in essence do what you propose, but we need to know what actually happened this time. The answer may be that people went blithely on without noticing but we cannot know that currently.

    • Mark Field says:

      If you are getting shortlisted for Royal Society fellowships you can be assured you are good enough for fellowships, lectureship positions and a career in science if you want it. The only question is what you want to do and when you finally get a job offer. That final point being the awkward one.

      The points you make about discrimination are important and need to be addressed. There is another picture here though, and that is the low success of applicants as a whole. This is not just for Royal Society fellowships, but for all academic positions and particularly full time university positions. The system can and does throw good people out, for all the talk of investing in talent.

      I don’t want to discourage you, you should apply for everything you would like to do and you stand a reasonable chance of getting these. I would, however, recommend a plan B. There is a very big world of science outside academia which gets little respect or discussion when viewed from within the system.

      I was in your position 20 years ago, I could easily have been a lecturer or professor and was short listed a number of times in the UK and US but I wasn’t ultimately offered the jobs. Moving out of academia was actually a very good move for me, I get to do more cutting edge research now than I ever could with the resources I would have had available.

      Good luck, whatever it is you want to do. Finding a job is a full time job in itself.

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  10. piscator says:

    Just one comment on the data – the `success rate’ percentages quoted are a little misleading, as they appear not to be including people offered URFs who then decline them (maybe this is a particularly Carlton House Terrace definition of `success’). I mention this in particular as in my area (which normally has ~2 URFs in total each year) one successful female candidate declined the fellowship.

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