Paul NurseIn September the Royal Society announced the award of 43 of our prestigious career development University Research Fellowships (URFs). This was great news for the 43 young scientists but I took to this blog to express my disappointment that only two of them were women. At the time I said that the Society would investigate the situation.

This blog reports the outcome of this investigation and is in two parts. The first outlines changes that will be introduced to these career development awards (and to other Royal Society selection panels) to address gender imbalance, and the second will summarise the analysis into what happened last year to try and understand that poor outcome.

The Society analysed the procedures and processes used to select successful candidates for all our career development awards (CDAs) including University Research Fellowships covering the physical and biological sciences, Sir Henry Dale Fellowships (SHDFs) covering the biomedical sciences and the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships (DHFs) for scientists who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health issues. The following changes to our procedures and processes have been agreed by the Council of the Society to tackle issues of gender imbalance:

  • We will review the promotional material and application forms for our CDAs and revise them to remove anything that may be inhibiting women from applying. We will also publish profiles of successful candidates, to give examples for potential applicants.
  • The Society will encourage more women who would be able to compete in a CDA selection process to consider applying and should offer to provide other appropriate guidance. Fellows should also encourage suitable current and former CDAs to promote the career development schemes to potential women candidates at their universities and research institutions.
  • The Society, working with Fellows, should engage in discussion with universities and research institutions about the nature of the CDAs in order (i) to enable us to increase our understanding of the ‘demand side’ and (ii) to help dispel any misunderstandings there may be about the schemes. Those discussions should encompass other Society schemes too.
  • We will mandate a programme of action to ensure that all those who serve on selection panels are aware of differences in how candidates may present themselves, how to recognise bias in oneself and others, how to recognise inappropriate advocacy or unreasoned judgement, how to contribute to a panel as a member, and how to be an effective Chair. This programme should draw on the wide range of relevant experience within the Fellowship and from outside. Consideration will also be given to having observers to provide feedback to panels. A plan on how to deliver this will be prepared.
  • Greater consideration needs to be given to the data gathered and analysed by the Society in relation to its own activities.  The Society should also look at the data available regarding diversity at different career stages to see whether there are gaps that could usefully be addressed through new research or analysis. We are specifically interested in commissioning, perhaps jointly with other funders, a project to examine the extent to which the distribution of funding for independent postdoctoral research in the UK is characterised by underrepresentation of women among applicants and/or lower success rates for women applicants and whether any gender differences in success rates might be due to subjective factors.
  • These recommendations should apply to all the Society’s selection panels.

The Royal Society is completely committed to these changes, as am I personally, and we will aim to introduce them in the coming year to all our career development schemes and other selection panels.

The URF investigation Council report (PDF) of what happened last year with the URF awards was not able to identify a particular problem or series of problems in the existing systems that could account for the low success rate for female candidates in that round of URF awards but we did identify the changes outlined above that should help support our aim to address gender imbalance.

Our analysis revealed that a gradual attrition of women candidates occurred at each step of the process and also that this was noted and discussed by the selection panels involved. However, by the time of the final decision the number of women candidates still being considered was low, emphasising the need to be vigilant and to address any issues, if appropriate, at each step of the process.

Another aspect revealed by the analysis was the reporting of the outcomes. In 2012 we moved biomedical researchers from the URF scheme to the SHDF scheme. Our URF scheme is now dominated by the physical sciences, where male candidates are more common, and so reporting outcomes of URFs separately from SHDFs is likely to distort the true overall figure for the career development schemes. The success rates of men and women for URFs and SHDFs together over the last six years are shown in figure 1. These data shows that the success rates between the genders are reasonably similar over that period with some fluctuations, probably related to the relatively small numbers involved.

In the case of Dorothy Hodgkin Fellows (not included in figure 1) the successful candidates are nearly all women, an understandable outcome given the focus on those who require flexible working patterns due to personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health issues – a group within which women are currently disproportionately represented.

Success rates as measured by offers to applicants for the URFs and SHDFs, 2009-14

Figure 1. Success rates as measured by offers to applicants for the URFs and SHDFs, 2009-14


A major problem that needs to be tackled is that there are not enough women applying for these prestigious schemes and we need to look at why that is – are there enough female scientists at this career stage  or is something putting them off applying? It is highlighted in figure 2, which includes both URFs and SHDFs and shows that the number of women applying has remained consistently low over the six years. The early indications for this year are that women account for 23% of applications for URFs and 26% of the initial shortlist.

Numbers of applications for URFs and SHDF by gender, 2009-14

Figure 2. Numbers of applications for URFs and SHDF by gender, 2009-14


The low success rate for the URF programme reported in September 2014 is unacceptable. It sends the wrong message to young and aspiring female candidates and damages science by not making proper use of the research capabilities of the entire population. 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 we have to put it right.  But the Society hopes that the changes outlined above along with our other diversity programmes can help move us in the right direction.


Read the full URF investigation Council report (PDF)

  • Dr Nicola Wardrop

    Is there any way the external review stage can also be considered in respect to the gender bias? Regardless of the training provided to the panel, if reviewers are consciously or subconsciously gender biased, the panel decisions will be based on biased assessments of individuals from these reviewers. I note that only 8% of reviewers were female, so this is one aspect that could be improved. However, research has shown that both males and females tend to favour applications from men over (identical) applications from women (e.g., presumably due to a subconscious bias. Has the Royal Society ever considered trying to anonymise applications going for review? It’s not really possible to anoymise a track record/CV, but perhaps the track record could be considered by a separate reviewer to the actual project proposal.