The beginning of the 21st century has seen the largest percentage of women in the UK workforce--a record 45% in 2000, with 68.9% of working age women in employment, according to labour force statistics. Yet women in science, engineering, and technology (SET) disciplines are not faring as well. As the academic grade gets higher, more and more women drop out of science, with percentages thinning out to 8% of female professors in the biosciences, 3% in chemistry, 4% in computer sciences, and 2% in mathematics. The recent rises in the number of female science graduates make this reality only more puzzling.

Perhaps more revealing, figures from a survey of women with SET degrees returning to work after a career break commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology concluded that they were not only economically less active than their male counterparts, but also less than female nonscience graduates.

Women seem particularly disadvantaged in academia, because the time researchers must be most productive is also the time when women may be thinking about starting a family. For those on short-term contracts there are no maternity rights, and getting back into employment is made even more difficult for female scientists by the inevitable gap in their publication record.

But this is old news to the Royal Society. In 1994 it launched a scheme to address the conclusions of a working group that began to acknowledge why so many women left science even shortly after completing their Ph.D. The scheme was named after Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who successfully combined a family with an outstanding career that culminated in a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships aim to help young women in the natural sciences--including agriculture, mathematics, technology, medical sciences, and engineering--to stay in research by offering them the flexibility to take career breaks. The scheme is open to early-career scientists with as little as 1 year's postdoc experience, but no more than 4, who have been employed or resident in the UK for at least the last 3 years. Although men may apply, the type of flexibility that is offered is designed to particularly suit women. The scheme offers maternity leave, the possibility of returning part time after the birth, and assistance with child-care costs during conferences and visits to collaborators.

Even though the Royal Society has only ever been asked about maternity leave, they say they would consider other types of breaks depending on individual circumstances. First and foremost the Fellowships are awarded on scientific merit; however, in the event of a tie between equally strong projects, priority is given to applicants who would benefit the most given their personal situation, a criteria jokingly referred to as the 'Hodgkin Factor'.

The flexibility also extends to fellowships being carried out partly abroad or deferred for up to a year to enable recipients to complete a project they are currently employed on. It is hoped that giving these opportunities at a crucial time in their career will enable women to go on to find full-time, permanent employment once the period of funding has ended.

The scheme provides a generous salary set at research staff IIA/II scales, which currently start at £17,626 and increase to £32,537 depending on experience. In addition, Hodgkin Fellows receive research funds of £11,000 in the first year and £9000 in the subsequent 3 years of the fellowship. "All of the Royal Society fellowship schemes are excellent with very little bureaucracy and lots of financial support," enthuses Dr. Hanna Kokko, who held her fellowship at the Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow.

But there is more to this scheme, which each year attracts 200 applications for 10 fellowships, than funding and maternity leaves. Surprisingly few women actually take advantage of the maternity leave itself but appreciate the independence and responsibility the fellowship allows them to have in their research. But however independent, fellows are offered the opportunity to have a senior academic as a mentor. Dr. Birgit Liss, a fellow in the department of physiology at the University of Oxford, explains that having a mentor is especially important when it comes to managing an annual research allowance substantial enough to 'give you real independence', a situation that many fellows may find unfamiliar.

Liss also feels that the independent career advice, training on media and communication skills, and meetings for research fellows organised by the Royal Society are an important feature of the scheme. "The Royal Society really cares for the research fellows and is interested in their development," she says.

The application procedure for the Fellowships includes the submission of a detailed research proposal and a briefing for a nonspecialist audience. Dr. Katherine Kahn of the John Innes Centre in Norwich recommends applying for all of the fellowship schemes for which you are eligible because, Kahn says, "each time your application will improve." As for the secret of her own success, "I think that a big factor in my success was being able to explain my research to a nonspecialised audience", adding, "It is very important to be able to communicate what it is that you find exciting".

But the Hodgkin Fellowships are not the only scheme the Royal Society offers to help early-career scientists, especially women, to remain in SET. They also offer a University Research Fellowship ( URF) scheme that, similar to the Hodgkin Fellowships, is open to men and women in all areas of the natural sciences. However, more experience is required for the URF. "The Royal Society is keen to increase the number of high-quality applications for URFs from women with between 2 and 7 years postdoctoral experience, as these provide longer term support--up to 10 years," says Helen Pask of the Royal Society. The URF are also restricted to EU citizens, whereas the Hodgkin scheme is open to all nationalities. Approximately 40 URFs are awarded each year.

For more information on the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship scheme and all of the Royal Society's fellowships, look on the Royal Society Web site or contact the Research Appointments Department either by phone: 020 7451 2545 or e-mail.

Career advice is also available through the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE)