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Diversity and inclusion

Women miss out on high-profile awards and positions

20 Sep 2019
Image of a woman climbing a ladder
Climbing the ladder: a study has found that women are under-represented at senior levels at scientific societies. (Courtesy: iStock/sorbetto)

Women are under-represented in senior positions within scientific societies and are disproportionally overlooked for high-profile society awards. That is according to an analysis of the leadership roles at 31 scientific societies in four countries – Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. Despite the gender imbalance at higher positions, the researchers found, however, that women are well represented in lower-status roles as well as with early-career society awards (Royal Society Open Science 10.1098/rsos.190633).

The study was carried out by Alex James, Rose Chisnall and Michael Plank from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, who noted the genders of people who had served as society presidents, won various awards and prizes since 2000, or been appointed “chief” or “associate” editors at society-published journals. The societies covered five disciplines: astronomy, ecology, economics, mathematics and statistics (though not physics).

Prestigious senior awards are still going disproportionately to men, even after allowing for the lower numbers of women in senior positions in these fields

Michael Plank

Overall, the researchers found that as the seniority of awards and positions increased, the proportion of successful women dropped. For example, women received between 38% and 91% of student prizes, but just 13–46% of early-career awards and only 6–32% of late-career awards. To see how these results were linked to differences in the proportions of men and women eligible for the awards and positions, the team compiled data on the gender mix of postgraduate students as well as various levels of academic staff in the different countries and disciplines. They found that the gender imbalance did not reflect the gender ratios at different career stages.

Among associate editors, women were found to be under-represented in 26% of country and discipline groupings, relative to the gender ratio of those eligible, but at the higher-status chief editor role they were under-represented in 50% of groupings. A similar pattern was found for awards. Women were under-represented in 25% of country and discipline groupings for student prizes, but this increased to 53% and 60% for early- and late-career awards, respectively. “Prestigious senior awards are still going disproportionately to men, even after allowing for the lower numbers of women in senior positions in these fields,” Plank told Physics World.

Being vigilant

Women were over-represented, compared with discipline gender ratios, as society presidents. But the researchers warn that their sample size was small, adding that a single female president since 2000 can be enough to make women appear over-represented in fields with few senior women. “When we think about excellence in science, too often we think it has to fit into established moulds, such as high-citation rates and being a plenary speaker at international conferences, which are more likely to be associated with male career trajectories,” James told Physics World. “There’s also a strong tendency for researchers to recognize and reward ‘people like us’, which can perpetuate a cycle of dominance by the same types of people”.

One society included in the study was the American Astronomical Society (AAS), in which nine of the 13 members belonging to its board of trustees are female and four of the last five society presidents have been women. “The future of the field looks more balanced in gender, but we need to be vigilant and continue to pay attention,” Megan Donahue from Michigan State University, who has been AAS President since 2017, told Physics World.

Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), which was also examined as part of the research, told Physics World that his society’s awards panels have equal numbers of men and women “who work hard to encourage the nomination of women” for the society’s prizes. “The society is in no sense complacent about the challenges in encouraging women to pursue careers in science,” he says. “The RAS has a long-standing commitment to tackle the significant under-representation of women in UK astronomy, particularly at senior levels of employment.”

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