Science is still dominated by an "old boys' club", New Zealand researchers have found, despite recent efforts to close the sector's long-standing gender gap.

In a first-of-its-kind study, Canterbury University researchers Associate Professor Alex James, Master's student Rose Chisnall, and Professor Michael Plank explored decades of research from 28 scientific societies in four countries covering five science disciplines.

They found that the number of women receiving prestigious awards in many scientific disciplines was disproportionately low relative to the number of senior women in the relevant field.

And as the status of the award increased, so too did the under-representation of women.

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Women were also under-represented in leadership roles in scientific societies relative to the number of senior women in the relevant field.

"We show that as the status of a role increases so does the under-representation of women, even when you take into account the number of women who are eligible," James said.

"We also show how some common practices in award selection committees will be furthering the problem and give some simple recommendations that can increase diversity."

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, was the first to look at the issue from the grassroots level of scientific societies, and across such a breadth of disciplines and countries.

"Our results show that the gender gap widens as you move up the academic hierarchy.
Women are as likely as men to receive low status awards, but less likely to receive more prestigious awards," Plank said.

"The practice of award-winners being decided by previous recipients can help perpetuate gender bias. We conclude that, when the stakes are low, efforts to tackle gender bias have been partly successful, but when the stakes are higher, the old boys' club still dominates."

"We wanted to do the study because we felt that scientific societies have a big opportunity to help improve gender equity.

Canterbury University's Associate Professor Alex James. Photo / Supplied
Canterbury University's Associate Professor Alex James. Photo / Supplied

"Although some of these initiatives have helped with things like student prizes, too many of the really prestigious awards are still going to men."

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Royal Society Te Apārangi's most recent diversity stocktake showed just 14 per cent of its fellows were female - and women made up only 32 per cent of its fellowship and medal selection panels.

Of researchers who lodged expressions of interest for Marsden Fund grants, 35 per cent were female – about the same proportion were awarded grants – and when it came to all government-funded research grants, women still accounted for just a third of successful applicants.

There was a better gender balance among speakers selected by the society for public talks (60 per cent female), members of the society's council (64 per cent female) and among its staff (79 per cent).

The society has been working over recent times to address diversity issues, including lifting representation of Māori and other ethnicities, and last year set up the advisory group Te Kauhuahua.

But it acknowledged that there were "significant challenges" in building diversity its fellowship and medals selection roles.

"The main difficulty arises from the lack of diversity in our current fellowship," it stated.

"We worked hard to redress this but it inevitably means a heavier burden on the smaller number of female fellows available."