The money shows it is a man’s world – how can we reduce the difference?

A new report created by Digital Science looks at championing the success of women in science, technology, engineering, maths, and medicine (STEMM). Here we share a contribution to the report by Dr Michael Head, who discusses gender inequalities in research funding. The report has fittingly been published on Ada Lovelace Day and can be viewed in full here.

The “leaky pipeline” is a commonly used metaphor describing how there are fewer women at senior levels in academia, even when they dominate in certain subject areas at undergraduate level. For example, there are more female than male undergraduate medical students, and at the early-career researcher level of academia, the gender split is probably roughly even. There are, however, far fewer women than men in senior posts at universities in the UK.

But there is also a “leaky funding pipeline”, with more funding going to men than to women. My own research has previously covered the amount of research funding awarded to male and female study leads across 6,000 studies related to infectious disease. However we split up the data (e.g. by laboratory science, public health research,HIV studies, research into malaria, or funding awarded per year), there was a consistent trend that around 75-80 per cent of the funding in each of these areas, and indeed the overall total, was awarded to male principal investigators.

There is also a “leaky funding pipeline”, with more funding going to men than to women.

There is no evidence of gender bias on the part of the funders here (and it’s not an aspect we assessed in our work). Evidence reported from the major UK funders, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, suggests that there is no significant difference in the proportions of successful grant applications led by male or female researchers. Thus, in this circular problem we return to the first point made where the issue is presumably therefore one that fewer female researchers are suitably senior and/or empowered to apply for research grants, especially larger awards. Our BMJ Open paper also showed that men are awarded not just more money but larger grants; this likely reflects differences in the initial amounts requested in their application by the male and female principal investigators.

So, there’s a clear gap, illustrated here by the example of differences in research funding trends. Is anything being done to address the underlying issues? There are several relatively high-profile (within universities, at any rate) schemes that have equality, and the role of women in science, at the heart of their activity. The Athena Swan initiative has been rolled out across the UK, and university departments and faculties receive Gold, Silver and Bronze awards depending upon their demonstrable commitments to reducing inequalities. One reason to be optimistic about why this might have a long-term impact is that research funders such as the National Institute for Health Research have signed up to only allow applications from research groups who have at least a silver Athena Swan award. In a distinctly tricky climate for UK universities (funding cuts, Brexit etc) the threat of missing out on high-profile sources of research investment makes for an interesting motivation to ensure compliance with funder rules.

Perhaps academia in the UK is pretty good now at identifying and preventing conscious gender bias, but how on earth do you begin to understand and change the subconscious bias?

Within universities, they typically will have further schemes to enhance the development for their own staff (both male and female), such as mentoring schemes. A number of universities, including here at Southampton, have additionally implemented a programme called Springboard that seeks to support and encourage academic women’s progression through the ranks. My view is that these initiatives are a step in the right direction and evidence is beginning to emerge that Athena Swan is having some positive impact, but measuring the long-term impact of individual schemes is difficult. This is an undeniably complex world with additional factors coming into play that we really don’t know how to overcome, whether it be American faculty members rating CVs and job applications lower purely because the name at the top is obviously female, or the evidence that female lecturers are consistently rated lower by students without there being any obvious drop in the standard of their teaching.

Perhaps academia in the UK is pretty good now at identifying and preventing conscious gender bias, but how on earth do you begin to understand and change the subconscious bias? That’s way outside both my expertise and my word count for this article, so I’ll leave that for others! We will need to see over the years what the numbers tell us about the number of female professors, funding trends and all the other metrics that can be useful in summarising the overall picture.

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