Inherent in the System


Indirect discrimination is disadvantaging women in their battle to build an academic research career. That's the conclusion of a report published just before Christmas which looked at the grant application behaviour of men and women at U.K. universities. The study shows that qualified women are less likely to apply for grants and, when they do, ask for less money than their male colleagues. The report's authors cite a number of contributing factors, including the dearth of women in senior research positions.

In 1997, two Swedish researchers, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, made a startling discovery: Women submitting applications for funding to the Swedish Medical Research Council needed to be 2.5 times more productive than their male colleagues in order to achieve the same peer-review rating [Nature 387, 341 (1997)]. The report prompted some immediate soul-searching at the Wellcome Trust research charity. A limited trust study found that women who applied for Wellcome grants were just as likely to be successful as men. But the study also uncovered the fact that women were applying for project grants in smaller numbers than would be expected. So the six research councils and the trust combined forces and commissioned National Centre for Social Research researchers Margaret Blake and Ivana La Valle to find out why.

Blake and La Valle contacted more than 3000 researchers and asked them several questions about their career status and funding sources. The responses confirmed the results of the earlier Wellcome Trust study. When women apply for grant money, they are just as successful as men. But, whereas 59% of the men had applied for project grants in the previous 5 years, only 50% of the women had done so. And those women who applied did so less often and asked for less money than the men. The researchers identified several reasons for the discrepancy.

Many of the usual suspects were implicated, with the glass ceiling topping the list. Professors and heads of department as a group are far more likely to apply for grants than their humbler colleagues are, and we all know how few female professors there are. In addition, women are far more likely to be stuck in short-term contracts, and all the research councils with the exception of the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as the Wellcome Trust, bar those without permanent jobs from applying for project grants. Women are also overrepresented among part-time staff, were more likely to take a career break, and had fewer publications. They were less likely to be involved in peer review and giving presentations, meaning they had a lower professional profile. Family responsibilities play a part as well. Tellingly, women academics are less likely than men to have children, but of those women with dependent children only 50% had applied for grants, compared with 62% of the men with families.

But Blake and La Valle spotted another, possibly easier to remedy, problem. Qualified women were less likely to realise that they were eligible for grant money. For example, whereas 52% of eligible men knew they could apply for Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council grants, only 33% of the eligible women were aware of the fact.

"It's a difficult problem," Jan Peters, head of the Promoting Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) for Women Unit in the Office of Science and Technology, admits. Peters suggests that "it needs everybody to work together to try to solve it." Clare Matterson, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust, agrees, and says the problems highlighted in the report are part of a wider picture involving the prevalence of short-term contracts and the lack of career structure for all researchers, regardless of gender. All these career-development issues, including the report's findings, are to be discussed at a conference in April, organised jointly by the Wellcome Trust and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will aim to produce a concrete action plan, Matterson explains.

Several efforts are already under way to address these problems. The trust funds Re-entry Fellowships that aim to help those who have taken a career break to return to academia. The Athena Project, funded by the Promoting SET for Women Unit, has recently awarded a number of development grants to projects that examine the institutional barriers to women's career progression. The unit is also backing a series of seminars to encourage women to apply for funding from Europe, and they offer grants of up to £1000 to women who would like to organise an E.U. funding seminar. One seminar has already been held at the University of East Anglia, with others planned for Plymouth, Edinburgh, and London.

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