Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Women and European Research Funding

The European Union recently released a report about gender and research funding in Europe with interesting results. Not surprisingly, they found a lot of variation from country to country and field to field:

No very systematic patterns appear in the data obtained. No clear relation could be observed between the proportion of women in a field and their chances of success in obtaining funding. For instance, in some funding schemes and organisations women had higher success rates than men in engineering and technology or in natural sciences, the most male-dominated fields across Europe, and in others lower. Nor was any large and universal imbalance observed in favour of men. However, some cases of imbalance can be observed, with various degrees of statistical significance. In a number of cases, on the contrary, women have significantly higher success rates than men. An example is the Dutch NWO, where, because of low representation of women in research, particular attention is paid to the quality of evaluation, and where promotion of women in research is an important policy goal.

But the funding story is more complicated than just whether there is bias against women applicants in evaluating grant proposals. It turns out that women generally ask for less funding. As the report sums it up:
The gendered patterns in application behaviour are a very serious problem: women are less likely to apply for funding than men and they request smaller amounts of money.
Women apply or re-apply less, apply to less prestigious sources, requesting less funding, and for shorter duration.
There are a number of possible reasons for that difference: a higher fraction of women are fixed-term or part-time positions where they are ineligible to apply for many grants, women may be less integrated into scientific networks, and may have less social support. In that light, it seems particularly unfair that women who do get grant funding may find themselves burdened with non-research tasks that reduce their productivity. As the report explains:
A new finding however was that receiving funding can have deleterious effects: according to the authors, ‘women may suffer an ‘inverse Matthew Effect’ where their initial success leads to demands on their time as high profile members of an under-represented group which make it harder to sustain previous levels of research activity.’
And why does it matter? Well, for one, there is the loss of potential women colleagues who find themselves unfunded or underfunded. And the report noted that when looking at prestigious awards there is a significant difference between men and women:
Very strong gender imbalances were noted among the awardees of highly prestigious grants, positions or prizes in many countries.
So what can be done? The report's recommendations include:
  • Monitor and encourage research on gender equality, especially with regards to funding statistics.
  • Increase the number of applications from women researchers by encouraging and training women to apply for more funding and offering measures to improve work-life balance.
  • Improve the gender balance among the "gatekeepers of research funding"
While I think the suggestions are reasonable, I don't think it's an easy task. In particular, the application rate of women for research grants seems to be affected by a number of issues of varying complexity. I don't think there's necessarily an easy way, for example, to improve the involvement of women in informal science networks heavily dominated by men, particularly those that combine social and professional interactions. If a woman doesn't feel comfortable (or is excluded from) heading to the pub with her lab mates she may very well be missing out on advice and inside knowledge that gets bandied about in those situations. There's no way to create rules to change such social interactions, although social networks for women scientists may help. Putting measures into place now meant to improve the situation is a step in the right direction.

(via an editorial in Nature about the report )

Download the European Commission report: The Gender Challenge in Research Funding: Assessing the European national scenes (pdf)

Download the related European Commission report: Women in science and technology: Creating sustainable careers (pdf)

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Kate said...

Thanks for the information.

Here's the proper link for the report:


Peggy K said...

Thanks for the corrected link. I've updated the post.

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bayan said...

Thanks for the information.