Last week I attended an “exploring quotas” workshop in Berlin sponsored by EMBO and The Bosch Foundation. The aim was to explore the options for the use of quotas or other interventions to increase the representation of women at all levels in academia. The invited attendees represented a broad range of groups and the workshop will inform a report which will be published later this year. I learnt a lot and heard about interventions that had worked and some that had not. A particularly shocking fact was that women only got the vote in Switzerland in 1971! Having said that, it was only in the 1920s that all women got the right to vote in the UK and USA, which was a mere 50 years earlier. Women do have more choices in their careers now – when my mother got married in the 1950s she had to give up her job – she had no choice, as was the case for many jobs such as teaching. However it is my personal belief that we still have a way to go to get parity and equality of opportunity, especially at the most senior levels. In both the USA and Europe the numbers of women in senior positions in academia does not reflect the numbers at graduate entry nor at lecturer level or equivalent.
Recently Athene Donald called for more transparency and action from RCUK on gender diversity. RCUK is addressing how to further progress diversity at the next meeting of the Chief Executives of RCUK. There are no barriers that I am aware of in publishing data on the gender balance of our panels and certainly BBSRC will do so in the near future. But this analysis needs to go beyond panel composition and I recently asked for a more detailed breakdown of our grant applicants (with thanks to Beverly Thomas for the breakdown). The initial analysis of 2010-2012 has shown that less than 20% of all grant applicants come from women. This is true for responsive mode, initiatives and our strategic longer larger grants (sLoLas). For the latter in this period there were 62 grants submitted by men and only 14 by women. So here there is a clear need for women to be more aspirational and submit more proposals.
On the other hand, I do think there is something for BBSRC and our panels and reviewers to consider. On average the success rate of women over these three years was about 4% less than men and this was more pronounced for sLolas. Given that there is much literature that women only apply for grants when they are more certain they will succeed and that it is clear as Athene says “women are not inherently thicker”, then something else must be going on. The European Research Council has also found that women have lower success rates of a similar order of magnitude. BBSRC intends to examine these findings in more detail and work with our community to explore ways to address this. One thing BBSRC and other research councils will be doing is to employ unconscious bias training both internally and for our committees – NERC have already undertaken this for their Peer Review College and Individual Merit Promotion panel. I underwent some unconscious bias training whilst in industry and it was very revealing. An interesting website on unconscious bias is at www.projectimplicit.net.
I will end with a quote from Carol Mason, President of the Society for Neuroscience, posted on the Society’s webpage under the banner Women in Neuroscience: A Call to Action – “When you are invited to assume leadership positions, I ask that you not shy away from stepping up and saying yes”. The message of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In can be instructive as a route for change – “Even if you aren’t confident you will be heard, or you are unsure about taking on additional responsibility, just do it. Take a seat at the table. Only by having more women in positions of influence will more equitable opportunities be created for everyone.”