Image via Flickr/IRRI
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. You might think, however, that when women do make it past the societal prejudices, through the years of study, and into a scientific profession, they’d have just the same opportunities as men. But you’d be wrong.
In a paper published this week in the medical journal BMJ, researchers noted a significant discrepancy in the amount of funding given to men and women in the UK. In short, they found that women scientists had fewer studies funded, and when they did, they received a lower amount.
Led by Michael Head at University College London, the study looked specifically at the field of infectious disease research across UK institutions, between the years of 1997 to 2010. From an analysis of 6052 studies, they found that 72 percent of grants were awarded to men, and only 28 percent to women (according to the gender of the principal investigator).
Furthermore, the men’s grants totalled £1.8 billion ($3 billion), whereas the women’s only totalled £488 million ($803 million). Those figures show that, overall, men got 78.5 percent of the pie. The median amount they received was nearly £180,000 ($296,000), while women got just £126,000 ($207,000). That’s a 43 percent difference.
“Women received less funding in absolute amounts and in relative terms, by funder and the type of science funded along the R&D pipeline,” the authors explained. “These differences in funding between men and women persist over time.”
These graphs show the percentage of funding that went to men and women a) over the years and b) across stages of research. Via BMJ Open
It’s important to look at funding allocation, because getting grants to lead research is a huge step in a scientist’s career. While encouraging more women to study science is the first place has been a focus of recent campaigns, it’s just as important to make sure that discrimination doesn’t bite back later in their careers. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a pretty reasonable 44 percent of academic staff in UK universities were women in 2010, but only 39 percent of lecturers and 19 percent of professors were women in their most recent breakdown figures (2008). Something’s clearly holding women back from reaching the top spots in the profession. And no, it’s not just husbands and babies.
Quite why women receive fewer grants of lower value was outside the scope of the study. The researchers admitted there were limits to the data they could access. For instance, they could not adjust their figures according to the seniority of the principal investigator, and it stands to reason that researchers with a higher academic ranking—and men do outnumber women here—would be more likely to receive grants. It’s king of a vicious circle, however: If women are receiving fewer grants, they’re less likely to reach more senior levels, which makes them less likely to receive grants, and so on.
They also didn’t have data on how much money researchers initially asked for, which could partly explain the lower amount granted to women. However, they pointed out that, although some people have suggested that women are less ambitious in the amounts they ask for and that simple mentoring programmes could fix this, “there is no evidence supporting these assertions.”
Of course, good ol' sexism likely plays a role. Past studies have found that, consciously or not, science faculty members are subtly biased towards men. In this 2012 paper, for instance, researchers found that faculty members rated an application for a lab manager position significantly higher when it was submitted with a male name than a female name. Sigh.
Whatever the reasons for the discrepancy in funding for men and women—and they are no doubt multiple—the authors insist more work needs to be done. “There is no evidence that women and men researchers are not equally capable; hence, other factors are likely to be at play to explain the observed differences which have persisted over the 14-year study period,” they concluded. “We strongly urge policy-makers, funders and scientists to urgently investigate the factors leading to the observed differences and develop policies developed to address them, in order to ensure that women are appropriately supported in scientific endeavour.”