Madam President? Rarely, if ever, in science’s societies

Unless, like the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, you were millions of miles away and asleep, it would have been hard to miss the fall-out from Sir Tim Hunt’s comments on women in science.

One fact emerged that struck me in particular. In the 350 years and more since it was founded, the Royal Society is yet to have a woman as its president.

This got me thinking. What about other learned and professional societies? I took a look at eleven others. The table below summarises what I found. The results may not be representative of others, though I suspect they are.

Total presidents Total women presidents First woman president
79 13 1929
54 5 1989
108 3 1975
102 3 1994
83 3 2008
106 2 1982
78 2 1961
47 2 2008
42 2 2002
26 2 1978
18 1 2012

One society has elected a woman as president one in six times. One other has elected women four more times since the first, just over a quarter of a century ago.

Those two aside, how is it that none of the others have figures suggesting anything close to parity between men and women in even recent years? Have there been no women of appropriate calibre?

As WISE, a campaign to promote women in science, technology and engineering, sets out:

“Positive female role models are important if we are to transform some of the preconceptions that the public, young girls, their teachers and parents have about who becomes a scientist, technologist, engineer or mathematician.”

Hopefully, the learned societies will look carefully at how the election or appointment of their presidents can contribute to this goal.

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