Royal Society head rejects accusations of sexism

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The Royal Society – Britain's national academy of sciences – has defended itself against accusations of sexism in the light of its latest intake of scientists. Of 42 new fellows, four are women.

MPs and the Equal Opportunities Commission have expressed concern that the Society, which receives an annual grant of £25m from the taxpayer, is perceived as an elitist club of white, elderly men, based partly on the fact that only 44 of its 1,203 fellows – 3.7 per cent – are women.

Although the proportion of women among the Society's latest recruits, to be announced today, represents an improvement on past performance, it will still have fewer women than many other national science academies.

The Royal Swedish Academy, for instance, has a female membership of 6.2 per cent, and 5.5 per cent of members of the US National Academy of Sciences are women. Only the academies of India and France have fewer female members than the Royal Society.

Lord May of Oxford, the president of the Royal Society, said that the poor representation of women in Britain's leading academic body reflected the fact that so few female scientists were able to reach the top of their profession because of high fall-out rates.

Past fellows of the Royal Society, which was established in 1660, include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Present fellows include Stephen Hawking and Francis Crick.

The election of fellows, which is run by a number of male-dominated selection committees within the Society, has traditionally been more unfavourable to women, who were not considered at all half a century ago.

"The proportion of women is vastly less than we'd like. At the same time, it's of the same order or slightly more than the extent to which women are represented in the senior ranks of the science and engineering community," Lord May said.

According to higher education statistics, of the 7,317 full-time and part-time professors working in science-related subjects within British universities in 2000, only 654 of them were women – a proportion of 8.9 per cent.

Lord May said that the latest recruitment of four senior scientists, about 10 per cent of the total, meant that the Society was doing slightly better than it might have done, considering the total pool of female candidates available.

"The biggest single push of all our efforts is asking what are the factors that make it difficult for women to stay on in science – they fall out at every level as you go up the ladder – and what can you do about it?" Lord May asked.

"If you look down at the younger levels, at the various research fellowships that the Royal Society gives, more than a third of them are to women. I think the future is brighter," he said.

"I don't think any of us is satisfied, we'd like to do better and in an ideal world we'd like to be a society which is half men, half women. It's basically something that demands unremitting attention."

The latest female fellows to join the Royal Society are: Professor Anne Dell of Imperial College, London, Professor Judith Howard of the University of Durham, Georgina Mace of the Institute of Zoology in London and Susan Rees of the University of Liverpool.