Professors’ privilege: seniority helps men dominate research cash

Gender gap reflects workforce patterns, not success rate bias, as women gradually boost their share of the spoils in an increasingly competitive ‘game’

August 14, 2023
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Female researchers do marginally better than their male peers in marshalling successful funding bids, a study has found, but seniority is so skewed that men monopolise grants in almost every field.

An analysis of almost 47,000 grants awarded over 20 years by Australia’s two main research funding bodies has found that almost three-quarters of the money – about A$19 billion (£10 billion) of the A$26 billion distributed – went to teams led by men. But this was not because of bias at the individual level, with women enjoying similar or slightly higher success rates in their funding applications.

Rather, it was because women had lodged far fewer of the 180,000 grant applications analysed, with the gap particularly pronounced at professorial level – where success rates are highest. Men lodged 78 per cent of professor-led applications over the two decades, and won 76 per cent of the more than A$11 billion awarded to professors.

Campus resource: How to encourage gender equity in interdisciplinary research 

The UNSW Sydney study has been published as a preprint on the Open Science online platform. “There are fewer women researchers in the workforce,” said lead author Isabelle Kingsley. “That’s what we need to address. [It] means fewer women applying for grants, which in turn leads to fewer women receiving grants.”

She said the disparity was particularly pronounced at senior levels. By 2020, 42 per cent of the funds awarded to “doctoral” level researchers – research associates, research fellows and senior research fellows – went to women. At professorial level, women attracted just 30 per cent of the grant money.

“There is a seniority problem,” Dr Kingsley said. “It’s about retaining and progressing women in the research workforce.”

The analysis found that women’s share of grant wins had improved significantly over the two decades, almost doubling at associate professor level and more than doubling among professors. But at the same time, overall success rates had roughly halved for everybody, with men’s conversion rates falling particularly precipitously. “It’s a harder game,” Dr Kingsley acknowledged.

The paper calls for “bold, coordinated action” to dismantle “entrenched” workforce patterns. “Only when the whole sector comes together to contribute solutions across the research ecosystem will we see genuine, sustainable progress towards gender equity,” it says.

Options include imposing gender targets and making funding eligibility contingent on accreditation through schemes like the Athena Swan framework, the paper says. Research institutions have “social and legal responsibilities” to ensure that their staff have “equal opportunity to excel”, it insists, and governments and research funders can help strengthen “employer accountability” by incentivising gender equity initiatives.

Gender targets attract criticism on both ideological and practical grounds. One argument is that senior male researchers may head abroad rather than accept lower odds of securing funds, depriving early career researchers – including young women – of the opportunity to boost their own citation rates by teaming up with highly regarded co-authors.

Dr Kingsley said there had been little research, so far, to determine whether fears of these types of unintended consequences were well founded.

“A lot of funding agencies are…trying different things right now and seeing what can be done to improve equity in the research workforce,” she said. “People are trialling new things and seeing what happens.”

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Reader's comments (1)

1. is the writer aware of all the contradictions? 2. is it 1970?