Celebrating the impact of women in social science

by Fiona Armstrong

International Women’s Day is a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. So the perfect moment to reflect on how women in social science have been making our lives better – a topic that one blog post can barely scratch the surface of!

The contribution of women to the social sciences is rich and diverse, although not always well documented. Where to start? With Florence Nightingale? Surely the mother of the modern infographic and a champion of quantitative social science as well as a pioneer in the field of nursing. Where to end? With the winners of the ESRC’s Impact Prize – where women continue to change the world through high quality research? 

From Harriet Martineau – often referred to as the first female sociologist and the first to study such issues as marriage, children and race relations, to Beatrice Webb – a pioneer in social research and policy making who played a crucial role in forming the Fabian society – women have been a driving force behind many of the economic and social advancements we appreciate today. And they have inspired much of the world leading research we fund at ESRC.

There is a life affirming quality to hearing about the work of ESRC’s Impact Prize winners. Since its establishment in 2013, 20 of the 32 winners have been women. A fabulous example is the ground breaking research Lucie Cluver and her team conducted on HIV prevention in South Africa. Their research showed that social welfare grants combined with parenting support and free schooling had the greatest impact on those most at risk of HIV-infection and the interventions they recommended have interrupted the pathways from poverty to abuse and school dropout, and onwards to HIV-infection.

impact prize

The 2017 Impact Prize winners with Jane Elliott and Alan Gillespie

When the Ebola crisis hit, Impact Prize winner, Melissa Leach and her team of anthropologists got to work setting up the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) website as a portal for live information and dialogue. Drawing on three decades’ worth of research experience in the border region of Sierra Leone-Guinea-Liberia, they recognised the need to bring communities on board. By providing rapid, social evidence-based advice they helped the emergency response to be more effective and they’re now working with organisations including UNICEF and the Wellcome Trust to develop the model for wider emergency preparedness and response.

Here in the UK, Professor Amina Memon’s research has changed the way vulnerable witness statements are treated in court. This has improved justice for victims and witnesses, and ultimately benefits everyone involved in the criminal justice system – police, judiciary, the general public and suspects. These outstanding examples of impact are both a testament to the women who led them, and to social science as a fundamental driving force for progress.

I’ve been privileged to work with many of our Committee and Council members as we seek to make strategy, policy and investment decisions that will impact UK social sciences long into the future – perhaps a less visible aspect of how social science is shaped than the research outcomes that impact upon our everyday living. In postgraduate training, ESRC Council members and committee chairs from Professor Dame Judith Rees, to Professor Tara Fenwick and Professor Judith Squires have led a transformation in the way that the ESRC supports early career researchers over the past 10 years – moving from individual studentships to a strategic network of doctoral training partnerships – ensuring that the social sciences are fit for future challenges.

This year, International Women’s Day arrives at a time when gender pay gap issues are, quite rightly, dominating the headlines. The ESRC has funded research to explore this, such as last month’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which demonstrated that average hourly wages are around 20% lower for women then they are for men. In line with our commitment to comply with the spirit of section 78 of the Equality Act 2010, we will be publishing our gender pay gap later this month.

As UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) comes into being, there is enormous potential for the social sciences to play a transformative role in the world. Our inaugural Executive Chair, Professor Jennifer Rubin, has just taken on the mantle of UKRI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion champion. What’s clear is that whether we’re looking inside ESRC or out in the wider world, valuing the diverse contributions that everyone can bring is crucial to building societies where we can all thrive.

In numbers

75% of ESRC employees are women, including 13 of our 17 directors and senior staff

5 women have been appointed to our new Council

2 women CEOs since 2014, Professor Jennifer Rubin has taken over the role from Professor Jane Elliott

0 – the effect of gender on ESRC funding success rates


Fiona Armstrong-crop Dr Fiona Armstrong is Deputy Director for Business Improvement and Organisational Change at the ESRC.

Fiona also has oversight of Communications and the Strategy functions, as well as holding the role of interim SIRO (Senior Information Risk Owner).

Fiona has been with the research councils since 1999, joining the ESRC in 2005. However she has also worked within Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Research Councils UK Strategy Unit.

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