Uta Frith gives insight into the Diversity Committee at the Royal Society

I haven’t always been a champion for women in science. I was incredibly fortunate not to have faced discrimination in my career and I was only dimly aware of the obstacles faced by other women in science who were just as committed to and just as excited by their research as their more successful male colleagues. I felt the gender difference in the recognition of women scientists only after I became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2005, when I was just one of three among some 40 men. This was a moment that changed me.

Times have changed since then, and I am very happy that I am now chairing the Diversity Committee at the Royal Society. This committee was established to push forward a dynamic strategy, proving that the Society can be a phoenix and not a dinosaur. The important thing to note is that we are not just saying fine words about equality and fairness, but doing things. We want nothing less than a culture change. We want to break down barriers to science.

One of the first things we did was to increase awareness of unconscious bias and possible means for overcoming it. An unconscious bias briefing is now routine for all selection committees and panels. An important part of our strategy is to work together across other institutions and funding bodies to increase the impact of our diversity strategy. For this reason we are very happy to work in partnership with L’Oreal UK and Ireland.

We have started to think beyond gender bias and have extended our concerns for equality and fairness in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) so that they include the talented high achievers of other as yet underrepresented groups. We are celebrating brilliant scientists from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in our Inspiring Scientists video series and scientists who took non-traditional routes into science in our I wasn’t always a scientist video series.

My personal aim is to double the number of the highly successful and much loved post-doctoral Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships through fund raising. These fellowships have proved incredibly popular with women in their early career stages, just when they are ready to start leading their own independent research groups. But there are far too few of these fellowships so that in the final round of the competition the most talented researchers can hardly be distinguished from each other. Yet about half of them have to be sadly rejected. To waste this talent is heartbreaking.

Although I was lucky enough to be supported by research grants, my own journey was far from straightforward. I started out studying history of art. But I wasn’t entirely happy. I looked around other subjects and, much to my surprise I was captured by a lecture on statistics that introduced me to hard-line experimental psychology. Suddenly I felt the excitement of hands-on experiments. It dawned on me that I might be able to ask questions about my own and other people’s ability to perceive the world around them, including paintings and objects – and I would get answers! I believe that changes in career paths can be a very good thing.

If there are young women around who like me, think that science is not for them, I would tell them: Be curious. Have a look at disciplines that you ignored before. You may be surprised at what you can do yourself. If you feel the passion you can acquire the necessary skills, even if it is through late tutorials. It is never too late. 

Uta Frith 

React on @4womeninscience 

For Women in Science

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