Monash University: Funding fuels gender inequality in STEMM leadership | India Education | Latest Education News | World Education News


Globally, women are underrepresented in senior academic leadership in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

In a recent article published in the journal Immunology and Cell Biology, my colleague, Professor Louise Purton, of St Vincent’s Hospital, and I report that at almost every level, women are held back by their sex when it comes to funding , their publications (quality and quantity), international reputation, invitations to conferences and contributions to scientific committees.

At the heart of the scarcity of women in STEMM, in Australia and globally, is the fact that female scientists are less successful in securing funding. This is often explained as a simple consequence of the reduced number of women applying for it.

But a reluctance to apply for STEMM funding simply does not adequately explain gender inequalities in funding outcomes, both in terms of fewer applications funded and reduced funding awarded per grant, resulting in less of overall success.

Instead, there are historical and systemic conscious and unconscious biases ingrained in peer review processes at academic institutions and cutting-edge funding agencies that simply favor men. And this translates into an overall loss of women’s contributions to medical research, reducing innovation for lack of a diverse workforce.

According to our research, many factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in university research:

Gender stereotypes place value on male leadership traits, while expecting women to take on the greatest responsibilities at home or caring (these biases are not limited to academia and can be identified in industry , government and beyond)

In academia, women are expected to be more involved in committees, provide pastoral care, do more service work, and have more teaching commitments, which reduces their time for research, writing journal articles and the preparation of grant applications.

Women are underrepresented at conferences and symposia – important events to increase visibility and networking

When women present at conferences, they are less likely to be presented with their title of doctor, associate professor or professor – one of many biases that can go unnoticed.

A young woman in a lab coat and protective glasses working on a machine in a laboratory

Peer review processes are unfair
Peer review is the basis of almost all measures of academic merit and, whether for promotion within an institution or for applying for government funding, peer review processes lack transparency and fairness.

This is despite research showing that women contribute more to work, receive less credit for publications, and are underrepresented as authors.

With regard to the most important scientific publications, women authors are cited less than men and, on average, men cite more men, including self-citations.

It’s the motto of academic performance – journal publications are crucial for getting funding and promotions, but if you’re a woman, you’ll just publish and be less cited, whatever your output.

Read more: STEMM the flow: More work needed to support women in medical research

While most quality academic journals accept scientific articles without the gender of the authors being obvious, this gender neutrality breaks down once the research is accepted for review, fellowships or researcher-initiated grant programs, which finance the majority of medical research in the world.

At this point, the gender of the applicant or perpetrator is clear, and it is at this barrier that women fall behind.

Australia has fewer permanent (long-term) positions compared to other OECD countries, which means that scholars in Australia are highly dependent on peer-reviewed funding to support their salary, the salaries of their personnel and laboratory consumables.

The largest source of funding for biomedical researchers is the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which is the largest funding body supported by the Australian government.

Three years ago, the NHMRC overhauled its funding programs, dividing them into:

Researcher grants, where the sole chief researcher receives five years of funding for their salary, as well as research support programs for laboratory expenses, including staff salaries

Ideas Grants, where the salaries and laboratory consumables of one or more lead researchers are funded for three to five years

Synergy Grants, with four to 10 lead researchers equally sharing A$5 million over five years, and requiring mixed gender and diversity in team composition.

A woman examining a set of lab results on a piece of plastic

The longer the seniority, the greater the gap
Since its introduction in 2019, Ideas Grants have had a 2% lower success rate for women. Under the Investigator Grants program, which assesses the quality of the investigator and to which approximately 40% of NHMRC’s annual funding was allocated, women had a lower success rate of almost 5%.

Recent studies by myself and Professor Purton, and the NHMRC, have found that inequity in funding worsens as women get older.

Since 2019, there have been three rounds of new NHMRC grant programs. Although overall success rates were similar, men received disproportionately 20% more grants than women, resulting in an additional AU$400 million in funding for men to pursue and advance their research in just three years.

As in all things, money talks. If you have less funding, your research output is reduced compared to your male counterparts, pathways are diminished, and women are crowded out of science at an early stage in their careers.

Not only is this grossly unfair, but removing access to the brains, experience, and expertise of a group of people based on their chromosomal composition is neither profitable nor scientific.

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