A record number of nine women are among the 42 new fellows elected by the British Royal Society this year. The 343-year-old scientific academy, which has never before elected more than four women per year, came under fire from a parliamentary committee in 2002 for having a low proportion of women and ethnic minorities.
Today's announcement of the bumper crop of female fellows comes weeks after the society's U.S. counterpart, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), elected its highest-ever number of 17 women in its annual class of 72 fellows (ScienceNOW, 29 April ). Women now make up 4.4% of the Royal Society's total fellowship of 1290, while 7.7% of NAS's 2015 members are female.
"The underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and technology remains a major problem, but progress is being made," said Robert May, president of the society, in a press statement. He said 11% of fellows elected in the past 5 years have been women, "which runs somewhat ahead of percentage of women professors" in scientific disciplines at U.K. universities. The society, which began electing women in 1945, has in the past defended itself against charges of gender bias by pointing to the lack of women in U.K.'s scientific workforce.
Among this year's fellows is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a University of Bath astronomer whose doctoral work at Cambridge was a cornerstone in the discovery of pulsars in 1968. The discovery brought a Nobel for her adviser, Anthony Hewish, who shared the prize in 1974 with another British astronomer, Martin Ryle. A number of prominent scientists maintain that Burnell deserved the prize as much as Hewish and Ryle. The increase in the percentage of women fellows, says Burnell, reflects a broader trend: Many women scientists, like Rosalind Franklin, are "getting written back into the history of their subject."