Glycoscience in the Royal Society of London

… and, oh yes, women.

In the Stanford Report (the daily faculty-staff news release) yesterday, a bulletin (by Kate Lewis) from the School of Humanities and Sciences, “Carolyn Bertozzi elected to Royal Society: Carolyn Bertozzi, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, has been elected as one of this year’s ten new Foreign Members to the Royal Society for her pioneering work in the field of bioorthogonal chemistry”:

(Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Bertozzi’s current research focus is in the field of glycoscience, the study of sugars on cell surfaces. As a self-described “glycoscience-lifer,” Bertozzi said she hopes that the “integration of all my contributions somehow elevates the visibility of the glycoscience field, which can have real benefits to human health,” including understanding the role sugars play in the development of cancer and inflammation.

(The two other top Stanford Report stories yesterday: Stanford faculty on net neutrality and a report on Stanford scholar-athletes.)

Full disclosure: I don’t know Bertozzi at all. Linguistics and Chemistry are both in the School of Humanities and Sciences, but that’s a very big tent. She came to Stanford from Berkeley three years ago, and she’s someone of great consequence. From Wikipedia:

Carolyn Ruth Bertozzi (born October 10, 1966) is an American chemist. … Bertozzi is an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and is the former Director of the Molecular Foundry, a nanoscience research center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She received a MacArthur “genius” award at age 33, making her one of the younger scientists to receive this award. In 2010 she was the first woman to receive the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize faculty award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Inventors, and the Institute of Medicine.

When I worked in the UK (in Edinburgh and Brighton), I got to hang out with some Royal Society types, thanks to the fact that my host, Christopher Longuet-Higgins (with careers in organic chemistry, musicology, artificial intelligence, and psychology), was an active Fellow. I couldn’t help noticing that society events were almost entirely male; at one spirited gathering, there was but one woman, the eminent cognitive scientist Maggie (Margaret) Boden, and she was, like me, just a guest, not a Fellow.

This recollection moved me yesterday to look at women in the Royal Society. Oi. From Wikipedia, with highlighting and comments by me:

Fellowship of the Royal Society is open to scientists, engineers and technologists from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth of Nations, on the basis of having made “a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science”. Election to the Fellowship is highly regarded and sought after, bringing prestige to both the individual academically and the institution the Fellow is associated with. For scientists in the United Kingdom, the recognition is considered second only to being awarded the Nobel Prize.

While there was no explicit prohibition of women as Fellows of the Royal Society in its original charters and statutes, election to the Fellowships was for much of the Society’s history de facto closed to women. As a result of the dissolution of nunneries in connection with the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, and female exclusion from schools and universities, the formal education of British girls and women was effectively non-existent throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Women slowly gained admittance to learned societies in the UK starting in the 19th century, with the founding of the Zoological Society of London in 1829 and the Royal Entomological Society in 1833, both of which admitted women Fellows from their inception.

The first recorded question of women being admitted to the Royal Society occurred in 1900, when Marian Farquharson, the first female Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, sent a letter to the Council of the Royal Society petitioning that “duly qualified women should have the advantage of full fellowship”. In its reply, the Council stated that the question of women Fellows “must depend on the interpretation to be placed upon the Royal Charters under which the Society has been governed for more than three hundred years”. When Hertha Ayrton was nominated for Fellowship in 1902, her candidature was turned down on the basis that as a married woman she had no standing in law. [She was legally under her husband’s control.] The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 made it illegal for an incorporated society to refuse admission on the grounds of an individual’s sex or marital status. While the Society acknowledged the provision of section 1 of the Act in 1925, in reply to a question originally put to them by the Women’s Engineering Society three years prior, it was not until 1943 that another woman was nominated for Fellowship. Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson were duly elected in 1945 [these are events in my lifetime!], after a postal vote amending the Society’s statutes to explicitly allow women Fellows.

As of 2014, a total of 133 women have been elected Fellows. Two women have been elected under the Society’s former Statute 12 regulation and one Honorary Fellow for their service to the cause of science. Another four women, from the British Royal Family, have been either Royal Fellows or Patrons of the Society. Of the approximately 1,600 living Fellows and Foreign Members, 5 percent are women. [That’s just pathetic, especially given the amount of work done by women in many fields — work that was, however, devalued as mere attention to detail (something women were judged to be especially good at, given that their domestic lives involved attending to myriad details in managing a household and caring for husbands and family), rather than big visions and actions.]

It got worse. From “The Admission of the First Women to the Royal Society of London” by historian of science Joan Mason, in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 46.2.279-300 (1992):

[An] approach to the Society … came from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). This was formed in 1919, after women who had replaced men during the War [the Great War, World War I] lost their jobs under an agreement between the government and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (who saw women’s lower pay as unfair competition).

Great, a pincer movement by management and the unions (both entirely male at the time): management paid women poorly because they could (the women’s choices were shit-paying jobs or none at all, but they needed the jobs because their men were at war), the unions saw the women as driving their members out of work by undercutting fair pay. (You will note parallels in modern American life, involving blacks and latinos rather than women. People caught in a socio-economic vice.)

You will see from the excellent photo of Bertozzi above that she is no eminence grise being honored in the twilight of a long life i science, but an active scientist in mid-career (she’s a bit younger than my daughter, in fact). That’s all good, but I’m still having trouble with that 5% figure.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: