I congratulate Ben A. Barres on his excellent Commentary “Does gender matter?” (Nature 442, 133–136; 2006). I was struck by the paucity of female plenary lecturers at the Bioscience 2006 meeting of the UK Biochemical Society. Spurred on by Barres's comment that too few women academics speak out against prejudice, I decided to do a little research on the matter.

There have been three meetings of the Biochemical Society in the new annual meeting format (Biosciences 2004, 2005 and 2006) and at these 1 of 10, 0 of 10 and 0 of 7, respectively, of the plenary lectures were given by a woman. Some of these plenary lecturers were recipients of prizes and medals, and I was so shocked by these statistics that I made a rough count of the proportion of women who have received these prizes over the years, as published on the society's website at Recipients' initials, rather than first names, are given, so I may conceivably have misattributed the male gender to some of the earlier names.

The prizes include the annual Colworth medal, given to a promising scientist under 35: only one has been awarded to a woman, out of 44 recipients, between 1963 and 2007. The statistics for the other prizes, up to 2007, are the Novartis medal, 2 of 39; Jubilee lecture, 1 of 23; Wellcome Trust award for research in biochemistry related to medicine, 1 of 11; AstraZeneca prize, 1 of 5; Frederick Gowland Hopkins memorial lecture, 0 of 24; Keilin memorial lecture, 0 of 21; Morton lecture, 0 of 14; Biochemical Society medal, 0 of 3; and GlaxoSmithKline medal, 0 of 2. This translates into 3.2% of the prizes being given to women, a truly lamentable record.

Furthermore, the statistics have not improved. In the past ten years, none of the Colworth medals has been awarded to women — and it is prizes such as these, given to scientists early in their career, that influence their future success. The results speak for themselves: that people will always give prizes to others in their own image, unless forced to take sexual and racial bias into account. I wonder if the record of other scientific societies is much better in this regard.

I should also point out that UK Biochemical Society meetings are supported by funds from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and by the European Molecular Biology Organization. Why do research funding bodies not assert leverage on this matter, by insisting that sexual and racial bias in speaker selection must be addressed at any meeting for which their financial support is given?

See Nature 442, 510 (2006) for other letters on this topic. Readers are encouraged to add their comments on the Nature News Blog at: does_gender_matter.html