On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for. 

The ERC has a very clear policy on gender balance. However, while for consolidator and starting grants 35% of applications comes from women, only 25% of the funded proposals are from women. For the advanced grants, a shockingly low 15% of applications come from women, and 15% of the funded applications are from women. So here, the success rate of female applicants is pro rata to the number of female applications. You can see the numbers for yourself here.

The Royal Society is also transparent on gender data for application and success rates for their University Research Fellowships (URF) and Sir Henry Dale Fellowships (SHDF). Data on their website show that the number of female applications, and their success rate as a percentage of these applications, are consistently lower than male applications and success rates. However, in 2014 the success rate of female applications for the URF was particularly low – around 2% compared to a male success rate of around 12%.

For the Dutch NWO early career Veni fellowships, again the numbers do not seem favourable for women: there are fewer applications by women, and their success rate is lower. These results were published in PNAS in 2015, but torn apart and criticised in a Dutch blog post that argues that the conclusion in the PNAS paper is not supported by the data, and that the percentages of female applications and success rates vary with research area. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016, both the number of applications and the success rate for Veni grants were roughly equal between men and women. Unfortunately, the NWO does not report statistics on gender for their more senior Vidi and Vici grants (although if you have a lot of time on your hands you can work it out from the lists on the website, provided you can read Dutch and know the difference between male and female Dutch names).

Last July I applied for a NERC standard (‘discovery’) grant, so I was very curious to see the numbers for this scheme (I will find out my result in the next 6 months). Here you can see that, again, the number of applications submitted by women was a lot lower than the number of applications submitted by men (98 versus 272 for the period 2014-2016). However, the success rate for women was slightly higher over the same period – 28% versus 23% for men.

I also tried to find numbers for the American NSF. This study by RAND, a non-profit research organisation, concludes that there is no evidence for gender bias in NSF funding, although the data reported are very limited, and it is not clear for which, and how many, years these data are. In line with the study that I mentioned above, these authors also conclude that there is a gender gap in NIH funding. But this particular study does not give any references or links to data, so it is hard to verify their conclusions.

Then, a while ago, an email was circulated across my faculty congratulating successful applicants for BBSRC funding in the last round. Eight successful Principal Investigators. Only one of them was a woman. So, I emailed the person who sent round the email, and asked whether this was a) representative for the number of female applications, and b) representative for the total number of female academics in our faculty. The faculty management were very helpful and complied these numbers for me. However, these numbers did not reassure me. They showed that, for the past  three years, both the number of female applications (as a percentage of the total number of female PIs in my faculty) and their success rate were much lower than those of men.

So, while the list of funders that I investigated is by no means exhaustive, we can still learn something from this.

  1. That overall, for the funding schemes that I have had a look at, the number of women applying is lower than the number of men applying.
  2. That for a number of funding schemes and funders, grants submitted by women have lower success rates than those submitted by men.
  3. That within my own faculty, both 1 and 2 are occurring at the same time.

This is not painting a very reassuring picture, and it really struck me how difficult to find these statistics are. The UK is clearly at the forefront here, with NERC, the BBSRC, and The Royal Society being transparent about the gender gap in both applications and success rates, split for their different funding schemes. Also the ERC is doing a good job in providing statistics and a clear policy on achieving gender equality. But I also tried to find data for other national science funders (in English, so I might have missed reports in other languages). Yet, while most funders seem to have some sort of strategy to promote gender equality, many funders do not report statistics on gender application or success rates, or only report incomplete data. In other cases, it is not clear where the data are coming from and for which time period data are shown.

Research funding is getting more and more competitive. Even excellent grants might not receive funding in the most competitive schemes. A small difference in scores, which can easily be caused by unconscious bias of the reviewers or the panel, will result in grants not being funded.

If we are to achieve gender equality in research funding, the first thing we need is complete transparency on application and success rates. We will need clarity on whether the number of applications from women that funders are receiving is representative of the female researcher population in that particular field or country. But while funder-level data are insightful, universities and research institutions should also make their internal data on gender differences in grant applications and success rates available. It is easy to feel reassured when there is no gender bias on a funder or scheme level, but institutional-level data give real insight in the commitment of an institution in supporting women in their careers.

So, ask your funder and your employer about these data, and ask what is being done to encourage and support women in applying for grants. (Note: there is a section ‘Support offered to those applying for research grants’ on the Athena Swan application form, so if your institution has, or is, applying for an Athena Swan Award, these data, and a clear action plan, should already be available).

1 thought on “On gender bias in research funding

  1. Pingback: Soil science. A man’s world? « Frantecologist

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