AMSTERDAM—Sorry guys—this time it’s women only. That’s the message the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) here has for male researchers during two special elections. In order to reduce its perpetual gender imbalance—87% of its 556 members are men—the academy seeks to recruit 10 new members in 2017 and six more in 2018, all female.
It’s about as bold a step as any science academy has taken to address the underrepresentation of women—and for some it raises concerns. “I don’t think we would do that,” says Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who became the first female president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. “Other people might feel that women elected this way somehow did not meet the same standards as their male counterparts, or even other women elected through the regular process,” McNutt says. But KNAW President José van Dijck says the process will be “just as rigorous as always.”
I think it’s truly remarkable. I know of no similar example in any academy.
KNAW’s headquarters, a palatial 17th century mansion on one of Amsterdam’s oldest canals, is hardly the only bastion of male power among science academies. A study based on data from 2013 and 2014, published in February by the Academy of Science of South Africa and the InterAcademy Partnership, found that only 12% of the members of 63 academies surveyed worldwide were women. NAS, like KNAW, had about 13%, although McNutt says the number today is 15.4%. The German and U.K. academies came in at 10% and 6%, respectively, whereas Cuba topped the list with 27%. Only 60% of academies had a specific policy or document addressing gender balance.
Because most academies grant membership for life, their existing makeup partly reflects past biases. Among current members of the Dutch academy who are below the retirement age (fewer than half the total), women have better representation, at 24%. At NAS, about a quarter of newly elected members are women as well, McNutt says.
One common approach to redressing the disparity, championed by the late Ralph Cicerone, McNutt’s predecessor at NAS, is to find more qualified women to nominate, then have them compete in the regular election process. But Van Dijck, herself the first female president in KNAW’s 208-year history, says the Dutch academy wants to move faster. The idea for special elections came from two male board members, she says: “I can’t claim credit but I embraced it lovingly.”
The plan “does not come at men’s expense,” Van Dijck stresses, because regular election rounds, which allow 16 members annually into the pinnacle of Dutch academe, will continue. The proposal was approved by a 73% majority during an academy-wide vote earlier this year.
“I think it’s truly remarkable. I know of no similar example in any academy,” says social anthropologist Frances Henry, an emeritus professor of York University in Toronto, Canada, who co-authored this year’s survey. Henry applauds KNAW’s plan. “If you want to move women forward, you have to provide the extra space,” Henry says. “Otherwise, we’re going to sit here for another two generations.”