Sort the hair, Susan, and you're in...

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The Independent Online

More than 500 scientists have been proposed for fellowships of the elite academic institution, the Royal Society, this year. There is nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that only 44 names have made it on to the short list recommended by the society's ruling council. What does seem curious is that only one of the unsuccessful names was made public last week, and it is that of a controversial woman scientist who has been critical of the Royal Society in the past because it has so few female fellows.

More than 500 scientists have been proposed for fellowships of the elite academic institution, the Royal Society, this year. There is nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that only 44 names have made it on to the short list recommended by the society's ruling council. What does seem curious is that only one of the unsuccessful names was made public last week, and it is that of a controversial woman scientist who has been critical of the Royal Society in the past because it has so few female fellows.

The rejection of Baroness Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and first female director of the Royal Institution, was confirmed by a spokesman. Indeed, it now transpires that Susan Greenfield may have been rejected as early as January, a month before her candidacy was leaked and prompted a whispering campaign against her. Speaking under the cover of anonymity, senior fellows questioned her academic credentials, suggesting that some of their colleagues were prepared to resign from the society over her candidacy and even that Sir Isaac Newton "would turn in his grave" if she were elected.

They don't like her much, do they. I myself have heard disparaging remarks about her from some of her colleagues, who dismiss her as a talented self-publicist. (This is a highly competitive milieu, remember, in which women are pushy and men are merely ambitious.) Her critics claim she is a populariser rather than an innovator, although other people who have promoted science, such as David Attenborough, have been elected. In any case, Greenfield has served on the society's council for the public understanding of science and been awarded its Faraday medal, and she holds the Légion d'honneur, all of which seems pretty distinguished to me.

Much of the hostility towards her seems to be a matter of style rather than substance, connected with her hair, clothes and appearances in Vogue and Hello!, publications of whose existence serious scientists should presumably be unaware. I am a bit uncomfortable with the way in which she places her private life in the public domain - she talked to the press last year about the breakdown of her marriage to a fellow academic - but I suspect it reflects the dilemma facing any high-profile woman in a culture mesmerised by fame. Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister 25 years ago this week, did not leave a happy legacy for her sex; imperious and flirtatious by turns, she was undeniably a man's woman, barely pushing the boundaries where gender was concerned.

Thatcher appointed only two women to Cabinet rank during her entire premiership, and the Conservative front bench still reflects the marginalising of women that went on during the years she led the party. She trained as a chemist and a study published last week - by the Athena Project, which is based at the Royal Society - revealed that eminent women scientists and engineers still feel disadvantaged in terms of salary and promotion. Female professors also think they get significantly less support from colleagues, an awkward conclusion for the society in the week that its snubbing of Greenfield became public.

It was recently cleared of sex discrimination by a committee of MPs, even though only 4.3 per cent of its fellows are women - hardly a figure to boast about, even if the proportion has risen to 11 per cent of candidates elected during the past five years. But there is no escaping the fact that Greenfield has been treated very differently from the rest of this year's nominees. She has had to endure leaks, anonymous briefings and public humiliation, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she is being punished for not knowing her place.

From Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century to Greenfield in the 21st, strong women have attracted bitchy remarks, spite, envy and mockery. In Greenfield's case, there may also be an element of class - her father was an electrician - and perhaps an undertone of anti-Semitism. A quarter of a century after this country elected its first woman leader, it would be nice to be able to say that women have come a long way. But misogyny is still entrenched at the highest levels of power, even if it is invisible to those who practise it.

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