Sex bias 'is built into research'

September 2, 2005

Male-dominated funding bodies remain an obstacle for many female academics

Women will continue to suffer gross inequality in Europe's universities until the sector eradicates major bias in the way research is constructed and assessed, an adviser to the European Commission argued this week.

Teresa Rees, pro vice-chancellor at Cardiff University and an adviser to the commission's multibillion pound research and development programmes, called for a rethink of what the sector actually regards as excellent research.

"It's all very well to look at flexible working to help women's careers, to improve human resources policies and equal opportunities training," she said. But this was mere "tinkering at the edges".

She told The Times Higher on the eve of the fourth European conference on gender equality in higher education: "We need a full-frontal challenge to how we judge research excellence."

She said the conference, which started at Oxford Brookes University as The Times Higher went to press, will hear that research methods favoured by men and even the type of research topics they prefer invariably win the available funding, accolades and awards, perpetuating a deep bias.

"We all want to believe pure research is gender neutral, merit led and objective, so questioning this raises challenging and uncomfortable questions," she said.

Professor Rees said that across Europe, men dominated scientific committees, appointment committees, journal editorial boards, prize committees and informal academic networks. This meant that the type of research that women tended to favour, such as collaborative and multidisciplinary work, was judged to be "weaker", she said This view will be supported by Catherine Fletcher, of the University of the West of England. Her paper shows that while women dominate in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, this is often "less accepted" by systems that use "rigid discipline based categories" to distribute funding.

According to Professor Rees, male-dominated committees tended to choose "masculine" research such as nuclear energy and high-speed transport. "When you get more women on committee things such as sustainability rise up the agenda."

Her view is backed by a paper by Barbar Buddeberg-Fischer, of Zurich University, that shows that in medicine, female academics prefer "more patient-related" fields - seen as "less prestigious".

Professor Rees said the commission was taking the issue "extremely seriously" and the issues was beginning to underpin its research and development programmes. But the challenge must be taken up by the research councils and the universities.

Esther Haines, of Cambridge University, will cite US research showing that when identical CVs were submitted for psychology posts, men and women were more likely to opt for a male candidate.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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