How female fellows fared at the Royal Society

d41586-018-02746-z_15503138In 1665, the first issue of the world’s longest-running scientific journal appeared: Philosophical Transactions. It was not until 1787 that astronomer Caroline Herschel became the first woman to publish a paper in it.

From its beginnings, the journal was tightly linked with the gentlemanly culture of the Royal Society in London. By the 1940s, about 4% of all papers submitted to the Royal Society’s journals had a female scientist as an author or co-author. Yet editorial responsibilities were restricted to scientists who were fellows of the society. So women’s involvement in editorial and reviewing roles at the society did not begin until 1945, when the first women were elected as fellows: crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Marjory Stephenson. By 1955, numbers had increased to 10 women — compared with 556 men.

Tempting as it is to point to the ‘first woman’ as a key moment in institutional histories, it is surprisingly difficult to see 1945 as marking a significant change in the running of the Royal Society or its publications. This is the conclusion after sifting through decades of archival records, including referee reports, personal correspondence between society officers and referees, and ledgers used to track submitted manuscripts.

Numbers of female fellows of the society did increase over the late twentieth century. But the extent of women’s authorship and editorial work did not follow suit. In fact, in 1955, 2.8% of submitted papers were refereed by a woman; in 1985, only 0.3% were.

Read the full article in Nature