Fighting sexism

January 8, 1999

Fewer women than men seek grants and research councils want this to change. But female biomedical scientists are clear about where the difficulty lies

At the end of 1997 the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council released the findings of a study into gender bias in awards of biomedical research grants. Contrary to fears, grants were awarded equally to men and women, but there was a catch. As a proportion of those eligible to apply, fewer women applied for the grants.

Why should this be so? More recently this question drew together a consortium of research funders, led by the Wellcome Trust, to investigate. Originally comprising only biomedical research funders, the consortium now includes the other research councils.

Their first step has been to see if they have a gender problem with grant applications. It will be at least a year before we know why the trust and the MRC have this problem, or if the other research councils do. But biomedical researchers should start thinking about the issues now.

Female biomedical researchers are clear about where the difficulty lies. The anomaly of fewer women seeking research grants occurs elsewhere. In New Zealand it has been found in a study at the University of Auckland. Jillian Cornish, from the faculty of medicine, sums up many common concerns: "For myself, life is so hectic, and in such 'low-win' activities I am less energetic than men in putting myself forward."

Many female researchers give lower priority to activities that have a low chance of success, such as seeking research grants and promotion. Anne Ridley, a biomedical researcher at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at University College London, is in charge of a lab of ten people. In a recent article for the American Society of Cell Biology, she wrote:

"Apparently women PIs (principal investigators) in the UK apply for far fewer grants than menI This presumably means they run smaller labs, either because they are happier that way, or don't have the time to write grants (like me for family reasons), or are stuck in lectureships with high teaching loads. The latter seems likely to be the most frequent reason to me - labs run by established PIs who don't have to teach are generally bigger than labs run by PIs with big teaching commitments."

Teaching loads, pastoral care duties and family commitments are big factors for many women: those duties and a less-than-perfect publication record would put them off applying for research money.

This issue overlaps with another topical concern. At a recent meeting between the prime minister, other senior ministers and top scientists, one of the issues in which Tony Blair took keen interest was long-term funding for excellent individual scientists. At the meeting was Polina Bayvel, a Royal Society university research fellow. She spends 40 per cent of her time writing research grant applications; to equip a lab she made more than 35 applications in five years.

There is also a seeming lack of part-time options, as the experience of Celia Williams, a biomedical researcher at the University of Bristol, shows. She recently applied for two part-time research fellowships. Neither funding body made mention of part-time status, and administrators said applications were rare. She did not get funding, but she agrees this could be for any number of reasons.

Whatever solutions are offered will have to be acceptable to all. More opportunities for long-term funding, larger numbers of part-time fellowships, and greater consideration of how teaching, pastoral duties and family commitments affect a publication profile will benefit both sexes.

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