International Women’s Day 2018

On this International Women’s Day, 8th March 2018, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) wishes to celebrate some of our inspiring female Fellows, and highlight some of the important work that we are doing to address gender inequality and increase gender diversity within our own Fellowship.

International Women’s Day is a global day of recognition, celebrating the achievements of women. Observed since the 1900s, it also marks a call to action for increasing gender equality. Gender equality and female representation has long been a priority for the RSE; currently its council membership is majority female, and led by its first female CEO, Dr Rebekah Widdowfield.

Our current President, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first female President of the RSE and will be followed by Dame Anne Glover later this year. When discussing the female diversity within the RSE’s council, Jocelyn Bell Burnell said:

“Encouraging women into science has always been a key interest of mine, and so diversifying the Fellowship was a key commitment for me when I took up presidency in 2014. The appointment of a female CEO and a second female president has shown the strength and progress of the RSE in diversifying the Fellowship.”

Please see below for a selection of biographies of notable inspirational female Fellows, and some stats about our current work.

Notable Fellows:


Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a PhD student when she made one of the “greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th Century,” discovering pulsars, which later led to a Nobel Prize in Physics. However, she was overlooked for the prize, and it was awarded instead to her supervisors; but this never bothered her. She has won many other awards, however, for her work in physics and her commitment and dedication to increasing diversity in STEM. She has often spoken of her experience with sexism in the workplace as a young scientist, and in 2008 she became the first female President of the Institute of Physics and then the first female President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2014.


Noreen Murray

A molecular geneticist, Noreen Murray was a pioneer in the development of genetic engineering which led to the vaccine against Hepatitis B. Her work affected all areas of biology and put the UK at the forefront of genetic research and technology. With her work taking place in the 1970s, her research came at a time where it was not easy to be a woman forging a career in science. Noreen Murray’s work and contribution to science has been recognised with a variety of awards and honours including being made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 and being made a Fellow of the RSE and Royal Society in London.


Val McDermid

One of Scotland’s most famous crime writers, Val McDermid, was made a Fellow in 2017. She has often spoken about her experiences at Oxford University, where she read English, and has spoken about the culture shock of leaving her home of Kirkcaldy. She has also spoken about her experience of being a lesbian in the 1960s, where there was a lack of lesbians visible in culture and that this led to feelings of loneliness and a struggle to understand herself. She has published 27 pieces that have sold over 10 million copies around the world. Her work has won a variety of awards including the Portico Prize for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award.


Christina Cruikshank Miller

One of the first five female Fellows of the RSE, and first female chemist. Christina Cruikshank Miller made crucial discoveries in analytical chemistry and had a commitment to ensuring that her students received thorough training in analytical chemistry. She was the only female amongst the first 25 Fellows of Heriot-Watt College and consistently fought for her place as a female in a male-dominated research field. An inspiration to her fellow teachers and students, she was also partially deaf and suffered blindness in one eye from an accident later in life, which only adds to her testament as an inspirational female figure in chemistry.


Charlotte Auerbach

One of the first female Fellows to be elected to the RSE, Charlotte Auerbach was a zoologist and geneticist. Charlotte fled from Nazi Germany in 1933 aged 34 after being dismissed from her teaching posts for being Jewish. She fled to Edinburgh and gained her PhD in 1935; where she researched the effects of mustard gas, finding that it caused often lethal mutations in fruit flies. She was elected to the RSE in 1949 along with four others, who were the first females to be elected into the Fellowship.


Notable Achievements and Work:

In 2012 the RSE launched an inquiry, Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM which set out recommendations to Scotland to facilitate an increase in the number of women in the STEM workforce and number of women in senior positions in the area. On 19 March 2018 the RSE is launching a review of these recommendations, looking at how we can consider the progress made on women’s equality in the Scottish STEM workplace over the past six years.

Below you can see a variety of graphics highlighting some of the notable achievements that the RSE and the Young Academy of Scotland have made in regards to gender diversity.