Media shines the spotlight on women in science

Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks about his experience with women during his research career have exploded onto the news agenda in recent days.  

Sir Tim is an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His words don’t reflect the Academy’s views, and the temptation was to immediately publish a statement condemning his remarks. However, we chose not to enter the fray immediately, in the hope that the debate would mature from a wave of outrage against an individual, to the identification of the underlying issues most pertinent to medical science (see some tweets from our Fellows at the end of this article).

It can only be hoped that it will highlight to the general public how important and challenging it is for female scientists to be treated as equals in what remains a male dominated profession, particularly at the senior end of the spectrum.
Professor Fran Platt FMedSci

The strength of the Academy lies firmly in its Fellowship and we are conscious that to represent the depth and breadth of medical science our Fellows will inevitably hold a range of different views. So our first response in any controversy is to turn to our Fellowship to explore these views. In this case we contacted some of our women Fellows and researchers to hear their thoughts about Sir Tim’s remarks. We received a mixed response, from outrage and personal condemnation, to shock and surprise at remarks that many Fellows don’t consider to represent the man they know. Overall, Fellows recognised the remarks as a reminder that there is still much work to do to towards achieving better gender equality and representation in science and research.

Scientists should be judged on their ideas and the quality of the experiments they do to prove them, not on whether they express their human emotions... Science needs many personalities and their creative ideas to make progress for society and humankind.
Professor Kathy Pritchard Jones FMedSci

Sir Tim Hunt was elected as an Honorary Fellow for his distinguished service to the cause of medical science and its applications. His research has brought enormous benefits to science and healthcare, and he has provided training, support and mentoring to many men and women throughout his career. He has made a valued contribution to many aspects of Academy activity.

He was not elected for his views, but these of course cannot be ignored or taken lightly. For several years now, we have been responding to demands from our Fellowship to increase gender equality and representation (and broader diversity) both within Academy and across the wider medical science environment. This event is another wake-up call that much remains to be done.

Science needs the widest set of skills to succeed, and these are found in the entire population, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, race, national origin or religion.

Fellows of the Academy reflect on their experiences:


In our efforts to improve gender representation, we have established grants and initiatives to encourage and support women in the medical sciences. One of our most recent flagship initiatives is SUSTAIN, a joint pilot scheme with the Royal Society, the Royal College of Physicians and the Medical Research Council. SUSTAIN is designed to enable women researchers to thrive in their independent research careers. The year-long scheme will provide an innovative programme of training and support to develop participants’ leadership and career potential, through workshops, training sessions and mentoring.

While we celebrate the fact that women make up 35% of the new Fellows due to be admitted to the Academy next month, women still make up only 17% of our overall Fellowship and ~16% of the wider medical science professoriate.

Tim Hunt’s comments about women in science are shocking and regrettable, but it is good that he made them. His comments demonstrate conclusively that sexism in science is not yesterday’s problem.
Grant Awardee, Dr Katherine Sleeman

In 2012 Professor Ros Smyth FMedSci was asked to establish a task force to examine the representation of women in the Academy’s Fellowship.

The analysis showed no significant difference in the rates of election between men and women candidates. However, it did show that we were electing fewer women clinical researchers than the proportion of women clinical professors in medical schools (itself lamentably low). As a result, we have increased efforts to ensure that the pool of candidates proposed for election is drawn from the breadth of medical science, and is as diverse as possible. This requires constant effort and attention, encouraging Fellows to recognise talented women researchers across institutions and disciplines who might not necessarily put themselves forward.

The Academy has also focussed efforts on supporting our women Fellows and grant awardees to play their part to help increase the number of women experts in the media. A recent report found that men experts outnumber women experts on news and current affairs programmes by four to one. There is clearly a need for more authoritative female voices in our media. Broadcasters themselves acknowledge that they would like to book more expert women to appear on their programmes, but struggle to find them.

In the past year we have supported 71 of our women Fellows to sign up to the Science Media Centre’s experts database. More have agreed to sign up to the database after receiving training and we continue to support our women Fellows to be listed on a range of expert databases.

There are a range of reasons why women may feel uncomfortable being thrust into the media limelight and for many, the prospect of a media interview is the stuff of nightmares. We have developed a bespoke one day media training course geared specifically at women Fellows that enables them to build their media skills with colleagues at a similar level.

The 27 participants so far have highlighted how inspiring and empowering it was to come together with other women researchers in such a way. Many have reported taking this sense of confidence and empowerment back into their working lives to help inspire other women at work.

This training has helped me feel more positive about standing up and being counted as a female scientist in the media which can only be a good thing when it comes to acting as a role model for junior colleagues.
Professor Philippa Saunders FMedSci

Improving diversity in all its forms both within the Academy and beyond can feel agonisingly slow, but we are making progress. Nevertheless, as we’ve been reminded by the events of the past few days, we are still far from fully achieving our aims. 







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