Make way for girls at the top

UNESCO and L'Oreal Awards for Women and Science. Photo: Getty Images

I couldn’t help smiling at the tweet from the spoof @Henry_Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Trust, which arrived soon after the list of new fellows of the Royal Society (FRSs) was made public at the end of April. “Can’t believe women are allowed to join the Royal Society now. Thankfully *hardly any* are. Might pop over and see if my FRS is still valid.”

In truth, 6 per cent of the fellows are women. There are now 82 living female fellows of the Royal Society, against 24 in 1980. Over the past ten years, the number of women elected is 43 out of 438: just under 10 per cent. Is this a poor show – or is it what might be expected, given historical trends?

Election to the Royal Society is widely seen as the most distinguished recognition of scientific excellence in the UK. The first female fellows were admitted in 1945. The historical and social changes since then have been great, but are they reflected in the numbers elected annually? This year, there were only two women and 42 men, plus one woman among eight foreign members. This compares unfavourably to five women plus one in 2011 and five plus one in 2010. There’s not much sign of a rise over this most recent period.

There has been a steady increase in women scientists’ share of professorships at universities in the UK (540 in 2010, 9 per cent of the total). This is comparable with female FRS elections in the past ten years. But the overall proportion is still woefully small. We can look for reasons for this in our culture and in women’s expectations of their potential.

An interesting phenomenon known as illusory superiority comes into play here. It makes many of us believe, in many matters, that we are better than average – for instance, that we have a better sense of humour and are better drivers than the average person. Rumour has it that 94 per cent of the lecturers at one university rated themselves as better than average.

Is such self-illusion more marked in men? Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College London, found that men are more likely to think that their IQ is 5 points higher than it actually is, and that women think theirs is 5 points lower. I wonder whether such a difference exists for the perception of intellectual achievements in general and whether this would have a dampening effect. If so, it might well slow the rise in recognition of female scientists at the top level. I am not saying that women should inflate their self-esteem, only to be disappointed. As ever, we all need realistic expectations.

Get on the list

What should be done? The answer is capacity-building – and the good news here is that the Royal Society has set up a committee
to monitor diversity.

The data collected by this committee shows that women make up 30 per cent of nominees included in funding programmes of the Royal Society, such as research fellowships. What’s more, the unique Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship programme now funds a cohort of young women (90 per cent of the successful applicants) who anticipate career breaks. Already there are stars of science shining brightly on the horizon. Their presence will make for ever more competitive elections in the future and for more female FRSs.

An all-male list of candidates for the next chief scientist appeared on Twitter on 26 April. It immediately drew pointed comments. From now on, not including any woman in the lists of candidates for the top science jobs, or for fellow of the Royal Society and other prestigious prizes, will no longer be acceptable in polite society.

Uta Frith is emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London
Michael Brooks returns next week