No gender bias in social science research funding, study finds

Discipline may fund women fairly because of a better awareness of the ‘ingrained, institutionalized male culture of universities’

September 9, 2015
Dame Athene Donald
Source: Rex
Dame Athene Donald said that data from the European Research Council showed that in social science and humanities subjects women were generally still less successful than men in winning grants

Female social scientists in the UK are not discriminated against when applying for grants, a major study of funding decisions in the area has concluded.

This is in contrast to other fields, where data from the UK, US and European Union suggest that women are less likely to submit grant applications and win funding.

Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and a former chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, along with five other researchers, looked at applications to the body’s “open call” grant scheme between 2008 and 2013.

Overall, women were as likely as men to be awarded a grant, with a success rate of 18 per cent. Below professorial level, women were actually slightly more likely to be successful (15 per cent against 17 per cent), and at both levels received slightly larger grants.

“It’s heartening that in social science in the UK women seem to be funded fairly,” Professor Boyle told Times Higher Education.

In a piece outlining the results, published this week in Nature, Professor Boyle points out that although in 2012-13 social and biomedical science had similar proportions of women, female researchers from the latter field were far less likely to submit applications.

“Critiques of knowledge creation that exclude women as both researchers and participants have ensured that men in the social sciences have long been aware of the ingrained, institutionalized male culture of universities – an awareness that may be taking longer to permeate the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” the article suggests.

Yet despite similar success rates for grant applications, women were nonetheless still less likely to submit applications and received less funding overall than men. This was because just three in 10 professors in the social sciences are female, Professor Boyle’s paper said.

“The key message is that we need to be making changes to allow women to move into these professorial positions,” he told THE. “Promotion issues are different because women are more likely to have career breaks” owing to maternity leave, while Leicester is currently reviewing all of its promotion criteria and wanted to shift to an emphasis on “quality not quantity” to improve the proportion of female professors, he continued.

But Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, said that “despite the optimism” from the new research’s authors, data from the European Research Council showed that in social science and humanities subjects women were generally still less successful than men in winning grants. 

“More work is clearly needed to identify whether there are endemic problems in a community – meaning women are less likely to write successful grants or are less supported by their institutions – or in the decision-making process and how this varies between discipline, institution and funder,” she said.

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