Survival of the fittest, or an old boys' club?

Last week MPs launched an inquiry into the scientific academy the Royal Society, which since 1660 has been dominated by men. Is sexism rampant in the learned societies? investigates
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The last bastions of male donnish dominion are finally crumbling under the glare of publicity. And not before time, many critics would argue. Last week, MPs on the Labour-controlled science and technology select committee announced an inquiry into the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and other learned societies.

These bodies are overwhelmingly male. The Royal Society, which has been going since 1663 and is Britain's premier science academy, has only 44 women fellows (3.7 per cent) out of 1,200. The Royal Academy of Engineering, set up in 1776, has a mere 15 women fellows (1.3 per cent) out of 1,170.

And the issue seems to be a peculiarly British one, says Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an eminent astrophysicist and dean of sciences at Bath University who has never made it to be an FRS. "In France and Italy there are many women scientists in top positions; in Great Britain, women have not seen science in the same way."

The result is that the Royal Society has been able to keep women out by arguing, quite reasonably, that they only take the best and that women have not made it to the top. The statistics bear that out. Only 3.8 per cent of the science professors (excluding medicine) in the United Kingdom are women.

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and the select committee's chairman, argues that the Royal Society is a white, elderly, male-dominated club when it should be a dynamic voice for science. "This is an elitist organisation which needs public scrutiny," he says. "It receives £25m of public money. We need to know what it's being spent on."

He is supported in his concern by the Equal Opportunities Commission and by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the body set up by Universities UK to promote equal opportunities. "The tiny percentage of women fellows of the Royal Society and of the other high echelons of the scientific community is unacceptable," says Professor Joyce Hill, director of ECU.

The critics appear to be pushing at an open door. Although the Royal Society has traditionally had a fusty image and was not particularly outward-looking until recently, it now has Lord May as its president. Formerly the Government's chief scientific adviser, Lord May is energetic and wants change. "It's a matter of great concern to the Royal Society generally and to me in particular that we don't have as many women members as it would be nice to have," he says.

The Royal Academy of Engineering is similarly turbo-charged. "I am very concerned about the position with women," says its president Professor Sir Alec Broers, who is also Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. "I would do anything I could to increase the number of female fellows."

First you have to sort out the problem. Why do so few women in Britain struggle through to the top ranks of scientists? Second, what do you do about it? Inquiries by The Indep-endent show there is no consensus about the problem.

According to Susan Blackmore, a scientist who explores consciousness, the Royal Society is an old boy's network. "But it's not entirely clear to me how it should change," she says.

That's because Dr Blackmore believes women's natures differ from men's as a result of biology. They are less interested than men in pursuing worldly ambition; instead they give more weight to their families. "Men are far more ambitious," she says. "They are more keen on heirarchy. They are prepared to bust their guts to sit on committees. Good luck to them. But let's applaud the women who do good science and have a more balanced life and don't get to the top."

Talented women who have been fighting to penetrate the top echelons do not appreciate this kind of talk. According to Professor Diana Woodward, the director of research at Napier University who has carried out research into women in higher education, there are strong male cultures in departments such as science, engineering and economics.

Moreover the prevailing ethos in university life is that academics cannot take career breaks without it harming their careers. "You can't afford to step off the ladder," she says. "The women who make it are very organised and clear about what they want."

The big problem is that the men who have dominated the learned societies for so long tend to recommend new members in their own image. "The generation which is appointing fellows is older," says Professor Woodward. "They have not been used to working with women as colleagues and a lot are quite uncomfortable with women. It's the same with people breaking into any new area. Until you have 10-15 per cent penetration, women or ethnic minorities are seen as exceptional individuals and not normal colleagues."

No one argues that the learned societies set out to discriminate deliberately. It is inertia and cosiness that prevails, say the critics. In other words, the sexism is institutional. Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at Southampton University, agrees that it's only human for people to recommend others in their mould. "If male scientists don't have women in their network, they won't know them and won't nominate them," she says.

Britain's best-known woman scientist, Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, who is the president of the Royal Institution, a more populist body than the Royal Society, and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford, was keeping mum. Last year, however, she was quoted as saying that the Royal Society suffered from institutional sexism. There was a lack of transparency in its selection procedures. "Existing fellows tend to choose people like themselves – mostly white and middle-aged," she said. Last week, however, she claimed to have been misquoted and would say nothing further.

Academics who have studied the employment patterns of women in science find that women are dropping out of scientific careers at every level of the heirarchy. Therefore it is not surprising they are not coming through as candidates for the Royal Society. After first degrees, women choose not to pursue the subject. The same thing happens after masters degrees, PhDs, and at different levels in the lecturing ladder. "It's known as the leaky pipeline," says Professor Bell Burnell.

The result is that only 10 to 15 per cent of women are applying for lecturerships, according to Professor Dame Julia Higgins, of Imperial College, who is vice-president of the Royal Society. "Why don't they like academic careers?" she asks. "There is something that is telling women they're not for them."

The answer is to introduce flexible childcare arrangements for women throughout their careers and give them plenty of support, says Professor Higgins. And that is in addition to the changes already introduced by Lord May, which have reformed the selection procedures so that only two serving fellows nominate a new candidate instead of the six previously required.

Meanwhile at the Royal Academy of Engineering, Sue Ion, the technical director of BNFL and a fellow of the RAE, says you need to start working on women even earlier in their lives. Engineering needs to be presented more attractively so that girls want to study it at university and pursue it as a career, she says.

Lord May is already putting the finishing touches to one plan for the coming spending review. He wants £500,000 to fund a programme that would offer one half of a couple financial help when their partner or spouse moves jobs. Very often, he argues, it's the woman who loses out when her partner changes employment.

And he favours giving families the right to offset payments for home help against tax. It should not be beyond the wit of the Treasury to devise a system that would help impoverished post-doctoral students without giving an unnecessary bonus to the rich, he argues.

The Royal Society: Academy of the eminent

What is it? The world's oldest scientific academy, set up in 1660. Its 1,300 fellows, the most eminent scientists of the day, are elected by other fellows for life and entitled to use FRS after their names. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin (right), Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking are, or were, members.

What does it do? Represents British scientists in Britain and around the world. Although an endowment funds much of its work, it is financed to the tune of £25m by the taxpayer. It publishes journals, hosts conferences, meetings and supports post-doctoral fellowships and professorships.

How is it changing? In 2001, the society wrote to university vice-chancellors and the heads of research organisations asking them to nominate individuals for fellowships. Nominations would be especially welcome for women, researchers in emerging disciplines and from universities other than London, Oxford and Cambridge, it said. Of 96 nominees, 11 are women. Since 1995 the Society has supported women scientists through Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships.

Will Susan Greenfield and Jocelyn Bell Burnell ever become FRSs? They stand a reasonable chance now.