An invitation to speak at an event is always pleasing and can be a learning opportunity. This was the case when, in May, I was invited to join a panel at a Birkbeck College seminar addressing the role of gender in scholarly community bodies.

As I celebrate thirty years with the RSA I reflect that gender has been a constant theme, discussed many times by the RSA’s Board. We have a Diversity Policy which sets out that as a minimum the Association should reflect the diversity of our field. What does this mean in practice?

The Association measures the diversity of the field in a rather rough and ready way. We survey a number of academic departments across the disciplines of economics, geography, political science and planning in different countries and, taking only teaching and research staff, we count the number of men and women. We exclude administrative staff because they would not normally join the Association. This provides a baseline percentage. Interestingly in our sample between 2015 and 2017 the number of men employed increased by 7%. The overall proportion of women was 28.25%.

We apply this percentage to all parts of our work including members of the RSA Board and Committees. Across most of our committees we match the pool but some committees, notably the Research Committee which makes recommendations to the Board on the allocation of RSA grants, has a higher proportion of female members. The gender balance on the RSA Board has improved sharply since 2008 when this policy was adopted. We fail to achieve target on RSA Territorial Ambassadors perhaps because these appointments are made in response to applications from the field; that is, the candidates are self-nominated.

In terms of membership we have a higher than pool average female membership of 35% but this shows a pattern of steep vertical segregation in that it is weighted towards the student (46%) and early career (38%) membership categories. At the tier of individual membership there is 30% female membership, and there are no female emeritus/retired members. It is notable that the Chinese membership pattern is more evenly balanced through career stage in terms of gender. The highest percentage of female members is in our Band B and C categories which incorporates countries such as Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and then China, Romania and Turkey respectively.

Our journals meet the target on editorial team with only our newest journal, Area Development and Policy falling well below the threshold. This journal is targeted at research on the Greater BRICS and its editorial team reflects this geographical spread. We perform significantly less well in terms of Editorial Advisory Board membership and this is something that we will consider with our editorial teams. In terms of published articles in Regional Studies it’s interesting to note that in 2016 only 17% of single authored articles were by women, yet in Spatial Economic Analysis this rises to 60%. For Territory, Politics, Governance it is 33%, Regional Studies, Regional Science it is 36% and Area Development and Policy it is 42%. For all the journals except Spatial Economic Analysis women are more likely to be listed as second or third authors on a multi-author paper. We do not have data on submissions by gender, but this important data point is being addressed through our ever-supportive publishers, Routledge. Note that all articles are blind refereed in RSA journals.

For conferences in 2016, the balance of attendees was better than the pool at 37%. This figure dropped for two co-sponsored conferences where invited local attendance was heavily masculine. In terms of plenary speakers for RSA sole organised events 32% were female (this will rise to 43% at Dublin, 2017) but again, at the co-sponsored events the female speaker proportion dropped to below the diversity of the pool at 24%. The Association needs to work harder with its partners to ensure that diversity remains a priority at jointly organised events.

RSA grants are given in small overall numbers, and the balance tends to change over the years, but in 2016 females were particularly successful in the Individual MeRSA grant, Research Network leadership, and Travel Grants. Women fared less well on Early Career Grants, and no females applied for the Fellowship (FeRSA) award.

The Association’s Board is aware that, as Angela Merkel says, if you don’t include women you only benefit from half the available talent. Moreover, as Sir John Parker, Chair of Anglo American Mining holds – diverse boards make better decisions. We are firmly committed to the view that wicked societal challenges need a gender balanced, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and international response. It is interesting that in 1994 a group of female MIT Scientists concluded that universities will only meet the diversity of the pool with deliberate action from the administrative side of the university, equipped with relevant data. They note that progress stops if monitoring stops, and that all efforts should be made to appoint women to senior positions.

By recognising that diversity is important and is properly a board level debate, and by implementing monitoring procedures, the Association goes further than many societies. But have we got it right?

I’m not so sure about that. I think that there are other ways to set the baseline that are now worthy of consideration. It could be argued (and I would support this) that the correct baseline is not how the higher education institutions are appointing and managing their affairs but rather how our membership has engaged with the Association. If we took a simple count on membership by gender it would increase the baseline from 28.25% to 35%, if we take a simple count across all membership categories. Perhaps this 7% increase in the baseline should be our starting point moving forward?

Sally Hardy