Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Too Few Women Fellows Down Under

I read a World View article in Nature this week (2 May 2013) that shocked me.  It is about how few women there are in the Australian Academy of Science and was written by Douglas Hilton, head of the Department of Medical Biology at University of Melbourne.  The statistics he gives are eye-catching with only 8% of academy members being women … and the situation is even worse than that low number suggests.

The Australian Academy of Science is modeled after the Royal Society in the UK and is the ultimate honor for Australian scientists.  It is an independent organization with government endorsement.  The academy was founded in 1954 by a group of prominent Australian scientists and supplanted the previous Australian National Research Council. 

With the average age at election of 49 years, the academy is naturally an older segment of the Australian research community and it is not surprising that there is lingering gender inequality.  However, the disturbing situation described in Prof. Hilton's piece is that the numbers are not improving.  This year had 37 candidates considered and 20 members elected.  Of the candidates (and new members), not one was a woman!

The government is aware of the problem and stated in a 2005 review of Australian academies that the academies should "focus on addressing gender imbalances in their fellowships".  The fraction of women scientists in Australia is ~15%, which is not high but is significantly above the academy number. 

Addressing such gender imbalance is certainly not easy.  Academies in other countries have also wrestled with this issue.  The US National Academy of Sciences is an example with its own low 13% fraction of women.  To deal with this issue and to finder younger members, "temporary nominating groups" were established two years ago.   The extra efforts have raised the current fraction of women new inductees to 20%.

Every country has its own culture, and what works in one may not in another.  The Australian scientific community would certainly benefit by finding ways to address the gender inequality in its academy.