Last Friday the Royal Society announced the latest group of researchers to be awarded University Research Fellowships (URF). That is normally a highlight of the year as it gives a degree of long term security – 5 years of funding with the possibility to extend for a further 3 years – to scientists in the earlier stages of their career, with the potential to become leaders in their field. It was a great day for the 43 scientists who were awarded grants but I, like many Fellows, was personally very disappointed to see that only two of them were women.

So how did we end up in that situation? First we need to be aware of the statistics for recent years.

University Research Fellows by gender

* 2012 was the first year after we launched our Sir Henry Dale Fellowships. These are also for early to mid career scientists but focus on biomedical science where women are better represented than in some other areas. Women have accounted for 28% (17 out of 61) of awardees on that scheme.

It is possible that this year is an anomaly as 2010 appears to have been but we cannot assume that to be the case. It is important, however, to take account of the figures over a number of years to get a true picture. It should be noted that women made up 21% of the various committees that elected the URFs this year.

This year women accounted for 19% of applications for the URF scheme but only accounted for 13% of those shortlisted, 9% of those interviewed and less than 5% of those awarded. Last year women accounted for roughly 20% at all stages of the process.

We do not know why the numbers this year are so different to previous years but I have asked for an investigation. We need to find out what happened and if we identify problems in our systems we will correct them.

On a more positive note we did announce an increase in the number of Dorothy Hodgkin Fellows last week, with the support of additional funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. This scheme was specifically designed to allow flexible working patterns to accommodate personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health issues. This flexibility is now also part of our URF scheme but the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships remain particularly popular with women who secured all 9 of the awards announced last week.

I believe that the low number of women awarded URFs this year sends out a bad message to young female scientists. The Royal Society must focus on excellence and we will not compromise on that but we are aware that too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender, ethnicity or disability. This is a problem across science, including at the Royal Society, and I hope that by investigating the problems we can better understand what needs to be done to improve the situation.

URF applications 2010-2014*


Update – 29/09/14

Gender breakdown for Sir Henry Dale Fellowships (PDF)


The URF application data table 2010-14 includes the following corrections


  • % Males Success Rate in 2011 – 8.3% – previously listed as 7.8%.
  • Number of Females awarded in 2010 – 10 – previously listed as 11. (11 female candidates were offered awards – 1 subsequently declined)
  • % Female Success Rate in 2010 – 8.5% – previously listed as 9.3%. (11 female candidates were offered awards – 1 subsequently declined)
  • Number of Awards in 2014 – 43 – previously listed as 40.
  • Number of Awards in 2013 – 41 – previously listed as 40.
  • % Male Shortlisted in 2010 – 73% – previously listed as 63%.


  • Number of female applicants 2010 – 118 – previously listed as 120.


Amendments do not affect Success Rate statistics unless otherwise stated.


  • Matthew Cobb

    Are similar things happening at the Research Councils? It would be good to have some time data on those figures, too.

  • Daniel Mortlock

    More complete data here would be useful. Can the Royal Society publish the numbers applying, short-listed, interviewed and successful, by gender, for the five years 2010-2014?

    • ruthfordrs

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment. The requested data has been added to the blog post above.

      Ruth Ford, Digital Content Editor, Royal Society

      • Daniel Mortlock

        Much appreciated, thanks.

    • MartinDominik

      Could we have the 2005-2009 data as well?

  • Kate Jeffery

    I was wondering what “investigating the problems” entails… who will do the investigating, what investigative methods will they use, what starting hypotheses are on the table, and to whom will they report? I see a lot of hand-waving from institutions about investigating and treating diversity problems, along with endless initiatives such as unconscious bias training for all, but relatively little actual hard-core research on the nature of the problem. Hopefully an august, research-oriented body like the RS will do this properly though!

  • Liz Lund

    Re Research Councils; most institutes are not appointing research scientists on Research Council contracts but instead trying to shed people on these contracts using redundancy and early retirement processes and often making new appointments using local university contracts. According to my inquiries these are not included in RCUK data.

  • Nikolai Adamski

    Thank you for the additional numbers.
    If I interpret this correctly, it seems that while the actual number of female applicants is lower than that of male applicants, the success rate seems to be relatively similar (female: 7.36%, male: 9.24%). This suggests that the decision making process is unbiased by gender and the quality of applications is equal between female and male scientists. So the reason for the low number of awards to female scientists seems to lie in the low number of applicants.
    So the next questions would be: Why are so few female scientists applying for a URF? How can we raise the number of female applicants?

    • jfd

      Where did you get those numbers? It clearly shows a success rate of 12.8% for males and only 2.7% for females for 2014. In previous years the rates were closer.

      • Nikolai Adamski

        I was looking at the average success rate over the five year period. Success rate in individual years can differ widely (both ways), but on average success rates seem to be relatively close together.
        This in turn suggests that the problem of few female scientists being awarded a URF lies in the low number of applications. Thus we need to find ways to encourage more women to apply in the first place.

  • MartinDominik

    “The Royal Society must focus on excellence”. – Strongly agreed. However, unless science carried out by female applicants is of lower quality, a selection based on excellence will not result in a gender disparity. Much appreciated that a thorough investigation is on its way…

  • Ged Ridgway

    By my calculations, a 95% confidence interval on the difference between the female and male percentages in 2014 (2.7 and 12.8) is [-14.6, -2.8]. So, this is statistically significant at the 5% level. For all other years, the 95% intervals include 0. CIs based on “method 10” from:

    By the way, I make the 2011 male success rate (40-7)/(529-132) = 8.3% not 7.8% as you have in the table…

    • ruthfordrs

      Hi Ged,

      Thank you for flagging this – the table has been corrected.

      Ruth Ford, Digital Content Editor, Royal Society

  • Bob O’Hara

    Has the breakdown by subject been checked? It’s possible that this year most female applicants were in areas where acceptance rates were lower.

    • Richard Cook

      It would certainly be interesting to see the number of awards broken down by subject area for each of the five years. Has there been a shift in funding priorities away from areas where women are better represented?

  • Many thanks for the very interesting analysis, and particularly adding the additional statistics on success rates. One further comment: “It should be noted that women made up 21% of the various committees that elected the URFs this year.” There are several studies showing that this is completely irrelevant – putting women on committees has absolutely no effect on gender bias. One thing that has been shown to have an effect is if all panel members (and preferably referees) receive training in unconscious bias – I’d be interested to know if this is the case for the RS.