Why FRS rarely means Female of the Royal Society

I have just caught up with the recent announcement of recipients of the greatest honour in British science: Fellowship of the Royal Society. It is not quite the Nobel Prize but adding the letters FRS to one’s name can give a big boost to a scientific career. So some ambitious researchers lobby quietly but hard among friends and colleagues who are already Fellows, first to be nominated as a candidate for the Fellowship and then to pass successfully through the Society’s elaborate peer-reviewed selection process.

Given the serious under-representation of women in the senior ranks of science, the first thing I look for on the annual list of 44 new FRSs is the female names. This year there are five, including Wendy Hall, whose research focuses on the way people interact with the web and other large multimedia information systems, and Angela McLean, an epidemiologist who produced the first mathematical models of how vaccine-resistant pathogens evolve.

Five women out of 44 new Fellows does not sound great but in fact this 11 per cent female representation is high by the standards of recent FRS lists. Last year was more typical, with two new female FRSs out of 44.

Leafing through the 142 pages of the Society’s confidential book of FRS candidates I can see where the problem lies: too few women are proposed for the Fellowship. The candidates are overwhelmingly male. The new crop of candidates for 2009, who will be eligible for selection over the next seven years, contains nine women out of 138 names (6.5 per cent).

So come on, you FRSs, make more effort to propose female candidates. They are probably less pushy and self-promoting, on average, than men of equivalent scientific excellence. But I know there are many brilliant and accomplished women are out there in Britain’s labs, deserving nomination for an FRS.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.