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UK Royal Society still trails US National Academy of Sciences in female members

Women in science

NAS/Royal Society

The Royal Society — the United Kingdom’s national science academy — today announced that it has elected 50 new fellows, who get to put the prestigious letters ‘FRS’ after their name. Among the array of top scientists this year are UK chief medical officer Sally Davies and climate economist Nicholas Stern. Stephen Chu — Nobel physics laureate and former US Energy Secretary — is one of ten new foreign members.

Just 14% of the new fellows are women, meaning that the Royal Society still lags behind the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in terms of female representation. The NAS had 21% women among the 84 newly elected members it announced two days ago, and consistently elects a higher proportion of women than its UK counterpart (see chart).

The Royal Society says that its selection broadly mirrors the proportion of women put forward for membership. Indeed, according to statistics e-mailed to Nature by a spokesperson, women made up 14% of new nominations in 2014 and currently make up 11% of the total pool of candidates for election (once nominated, candidates remain eligible for election for seven years). However, women now make up 17% of UK professors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, a parliamentary report noted in February. (The Royal Society prefers to quote figures from the UKRC in 2010, which found 9.3% female professors in STEM subjects in full-time employment, and is “the best match for the pool of people who are likely to be elected as Fellows”, it says).

The National Academy of Sciences keeps its election process confidential, but the United States overall has a slightly healthier proportion of women in the senior echelons of science. The US National Science Foundation estimates that as long ago as 2010, women made up 21% of full science professors. (More up-to-date figures specific to the sciences are not available; see Nature’s special issue, ‘Women in Science’ for more details).

The Royal Society is aware of the issue. A spokesperson points out that in 2012–13, the society ran a project called Mobilising Research Fellows to improve the diversity of candidates for fellowship and academy medals, and in particular to improve the pool of female candidates. In 2013 it set up four ‘temporary nominating groups’ to pick out people in areas where the fellowship was under-represented, which included female candidates and industry.

Indeed, the academy found room to elect some industry-oriented fellows this year, including Andrew Mackenzie, the chief executive officer of mining giant BHP Biliton, and Michael Lynch, the computer-science and technology entrepreneur who co-founded the software business Autonomy. (In 2011, Hewlett-Packard (HP) bought Autonomy for more than US$11 billion, but the deal rapidly soured. HP wrote off $8.8 billion from the firm’s value and accused the British firm’s senior management of unlawful accounting and other misrepresentations — allegations still under investigation by financial authorities.)

As for the new NAS members, they include nanoscientist Fraser Stoddart (Scottish-born and already a fellow of the Royal Society, but now at Northwestern University in Illinois), and David Shaw, the former hedge-fund magnate who gave up his financial career more than a decade ago and now uses supercomputers to simulate protein folding. New foreign members include Japanese Nobel chemistry laureate Ei-ichi Negishi and Danish palaeobiologist Eske Willerslev.

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    susan Porter Thomas said:

    There’s no one answer here but it would certainly help if there were better female role models in school sciences, I had only male ones (slightly strange at that) who really didn’t make you feel it was a ‘cool’ subject. I love science so stuck with it and did a maths degree but really it was only because of my love of the subject rather than the role models I was exposed to.

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