Between March 9th and April 17th 2015 Professor Paul Nurse of the Royal Society was commissioned by the UK government to lead an open consultation as part of his independent review of research councils

After some email correspondence with him about gender equality aspects of research funding, on 14th April I submitted my report (the relevant section is reproduced below). When the report was finally published on Nov 19th 2015, I was surprised to find that the only reference to equality suggested blanket approval from those consulted (see p.18 here ).

I emailed Prof Nurse on Nov 25th:

"Your review of research councils says "Respondents also highlighted the Research Councils’ role in areas such as fostering an employment environment that supports more attractive, sustainable research careers, and in promoting equality and diversity in the research base." This is misleading, because I submitted evidence to you that gender equality schemes - and especially the move to restrict funding based on compliance with gender equality schemes - are unfair and undesirable.

I note that in several parts of the review you comment that "one respondent" made a point on a given topic, so even if mine was the only response that expressed a view on gender equality, this view should have been included in your report.

Please explain why my views on gender equality were not represented in any way in your review".

Paul Nurse did not reply, but one of his staff emailed on Nov 27th:

"Thank you for your email which Paul has asked us to respond to. The Evidence Annex is a Summary of responses to the call for evidence rather than an exhaustive list of all responses. Those which are included were chosen as they were most relevant to the Strategic Themes outlined in the Evidence Annex.

We are grateful for your time to respond to the review. We note your views on gender and will pass them on to the team leading on the implementation of Paul’s review."

Paul Nurse, leading a supposedly open consultation, has ignored the issue of gender equality twice - first in his report and again in his (lack of) response. 

[Update: Nurse - without a trace of irony - suggested in Feb 2016 that the research community has a duty of care towards the research councils, and should be encouraged to contribute more to the councils’ work with greater engagement with senior policymakers (cited in Walker, 2016). My experience is that the voice of the research community matters little to Paul Nurse].

So my question now is: what does it take for the government and their representatives to wake up to the problematic aspects of gender equality schemes?

Extract from my submission to the Nurse Review of Research Councils

"My understanding from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting inquiry on women in STEM careers (2013) is that the research councils are planning to fund only those institutions that adopt gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN and Project Juno (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting 2013, comments made in meeting at 10.01am). I agree with Prof Uta Frith, that witholding funding from institutions that don't adopt gender equality schemes is heavy handed and a threat to research excellence (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting 2013, comments made in meeting at 11.15am). Despite the seeming popularity of the various well-intentioned gender equality schemes, the evidence is far from clear that such schemes will benefit women or science. Indeed the lesson from the world of business is that years of pushing gender equality policies in Sweden has not resulted in the expected number of women leading businesses (Henrekson & Stenkula, 2009), and an assessment of almost 2000 firms in the US concluded that “mandating gender quotas for directors can reduce firm value for well-governed firms” (Adams & Ferreira 2008, p.291).

The reasons why women are less inclined than men to pursue careers in chemistry was examined in a paper, widely- circulated a few years ago (RSC, 2008). Some people have cited this paper as evidence supporting the case for encouraging more women into STEM and promoting their careers. However, in fact, the paper suggested that there are relatively few women in chemistry careers simply because chemistry careers generally don’t appeal to women as much as other career choices or lifestyle options. The paper concluded that female students "formed the impression the doctoral research process is an ordeal filled with frustration, pressure and stress, which a career in research would only prolong”, and a career in chemistry was seen as solitary, entailed long hours, stress, a competitive culture and was not conducive “with other aspects of their life, particularly relationships and family” (RSC 2008, p.7). These findings echo wider research showing that only 20% of women choose to put their career (whether STEM or any other field) before family life (Hakim, 2000). I don’t know what percentage of the 20% want a career in STEM rather than a career in any other field, but it is likely that gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN represent the career aspirations of only a small minority of women. This general lack of enthusiasm from women for STEM careers is surely part of the reason that only about 25% of applicants to the Royal Society’s University Research Fellowships in 2014 were women (Royal Society, 2015). The underrepresentation of women is not so much about institutional bias (or ‘unconscious bias’ as is imaginatively suggested in some circles), or lack of female role models in STEM, but a result of the choices of women themselves. One might argue that the rational choice of the majority of women is something to be respected, not a problem to be solved.

Even if gender equality legislation were able to succeed in bringing more women into STEM careers, it is ethically questionable to promote the careers of women over the careers of men. Unless there are unlimited jobs and unlimited opportunities for promotion for all, then it is difficult to see how men will not lose out in the current zeal for gender equality. Even if more women in STEM is a good idea, marginalising men from their chosen careers is not. Men generally find unemployment more stressful than women do (Paul & Moser, 2009) and already commit suicide at over three times the rate that women do (Office of National Statistics, 2012). Furthermore, men and boys are continuing to fall behind in education in general, and women are continuing to be steadfastly less inclined to choose STEM subjects at university. According to figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in Jan 2015:

“A record 57,800 more women than men were accepted into British universities in 2014, with women accounting for 56 per cent of the intake and men for 44 per cent. However the picture is uneven across subjects. In 2014 more men than women were recruited in one third of subjects, including engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, architecture and maths. The starkest gaps were seen in engineering and computer science, where men accounted for more than 85 per cent of new entrants.

Conversely women dominated in two thirds of subjects, including nursing, the arts, undergraduate teaching courses, social sciences, biology and law. In education and nursing, women formed more than 80 per cent of the intake.

The disparities could have a knock-on effect on women’s future career prospects, given the government has earmarked science, technology, engineering and maths as priorities for economic development. The Labour party is also said to be currently contemplating whether make a manifesto pledge to lower tuition fees in England in these subjects..." (Hall, 2015).

If, as the above UCAS figures suggest, the government has earmarked STEM as a priority for economic development, then surely it makes sense to invest in encouraging boys back into the areas that they have traditionally excelled in. This could be done in tandem with encouraging girls to be more interested in studying STEM. Likewise, why not give men in STEM jobs as many opportunities to develop their careers as are now being given to women. My suggestion would be that anything given to help women's careers in STEM (e.g. the Athena SWAN career workshops for women, career networks for women, and career mentors for women) should be made available to men too. This would be in the true spirit of gender equality, and would maximise the numbers of STEM experts - men and women - in the UK. Plans to do anything that works against this, for example plans to fund only those institutions that favour women's careers over men's, should be replaced with plans that are supportive of all researchers regardless of gender.

There is also an issue of transparency here, because most of researchers I have spoken to have not been aware of the role of gender equality schemes at universities, let alone the planned restrictions on funding. It seems to me that science is facing a covert revolution in funding that will impact that future of the UK in many ways, yet few of the people ‘at the coal face’ have been warned about this revolution, nor consulted on whether we approve of it. And if any consultation consisted of little more than asking people ‘Do you support gender equality?’ without going on to explain that ‘equality’ in this context means ‘women-only special access to career advancement’, then this is not a transparent process.

One final note is that most of the academics I have spoken with agree that gender equality schemes are not a good idea, and that ‘equality’ in this context is a misnomer. However all of the academics who felt this way said they were reluctant to give voice to their opinions (e.g. submit evidence to this review, or discuss the matter with their manager or HR department) for fear of a resulting negative impact on their careers and ability to gain research funding."


Adams, R. B., & Ferreira, D. (2009). Women in the boardroom and their impact on governance and performance. Journal of financial economics, 94(2), 291-309.

Hakim, C (2000). Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press 2000.

Hall, R. (2015). Women outnumber men in two-thirds of subjects. Published in Research Professional (accessed online 9th Feb 2015

Henrekson M and Stenkula M (2009) ‘Why are there so few female top executives in egalitarian welfare states?’, The Independent Review, 14(2): 239-270

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting on 30th Oct 2013 (accessed online 9th Feb 2015

Office of National Statistics (2012). Retrieved from

Royal Society (2015). University Research Fellowships 2014

Paul, K.I., and Moser, K. (2009). Unemployment impairs mental health: Meta-analyses. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74, 264–282

RSC (2008). The Chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention. Royal Society of Chemistry.

Walker, D (2016). Nurse review recommends harnessing a mythical beast. Retrieved on 24/02/2016 from