Promoting Gender Equality at the European Research Council

Isabelle Vernos

Isabelle Vernos

CREDIT: Isabelle Vernos

Last week, the European Research Council (ERC) launched its first call for proposals under Horizon 2020, the European Union's next research funding program.

Since 2007, the ERC has offered generous grants to the best scientists from any discipline and country, allowing them to carry out their research in Europe. Building up on its early success, the ERC is to receive a whopping 75% budget increase for the next 7 years compared to the Seventh Framework Programme, which started in 2007 and ends this year. In 2014, scientists who earned their Ph.D.s in the last 2 to 7 years will be eligible to compete for some 370 so-called Starting Grants, each worth up to €1.5 million over 5 years.

"Starting in 2010, we eliminated the self-evaluation section because women are not good at prizing themselves for their achievements." Isabelle Vernos

The ERC has long been concerned about how to make sure that all applicants are treated fairly and have equal opportunities, especially in regards to gender. In 2008, the agency set up a gender balance working group to monitor its grant proposal evaluation system and come up with practical measures to help female scientists reach the top. Under the ERC's gender equality plan, for instance, peer-review panels should be at least 40% comprised of the "underrepresented gender."

Two weeks ago, the ERC held an event in Brussels where gender experts and representatives of national research organizations debated how to further promote the participation of women in science, drawing on experiences from various countries and organizations. Science Careers spoke with Isabelle Vernos, chairwoman of the ERC Scientific Council's Working Group on Gender Balance and research professor at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, about the funding agency's efforts to bolster the prospects of female applicants.

The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You have analyzed data from ERC applications under a gender-minded lens since 2007. What did you find?

I.V.: The percentage of applications from women scientists is low overall. For the Starting Grants, we receive on average 30% of applications from women and for the Advanced Grants for experienced researchers, only 15%. We wanted to understand why this is the case, and of course one possibility was that the pool of women who could apply was around that percentage. We have compared our data with the European Commission's She Figures 2012, and found that we in fact received a lower proportion of applications from women than could be expected based only on the pool of potential applicants. It means that women somehow have less of a tendency to apply, even if they are at an adequate level of qualification—and this is the case for both younger and more established scientists.

Q: How does this vary from one European country to another?

I.V.: In some countries, the percentage of applications we receive from women is approximately the same as the percentage of women scientists. This happens for example in Austria: We receive 21% of Starting Grant applications from Austrian women, where there are 22% of women at this career level. In other countries, like the Netherlands for example, we actually receive a higher percentage of applications from women than the percentage of women scientists in that country. But in most cases it is exactly the opposite: We only have 34% of Finnish women applying for Starting Grants while there are 52% of women scientists in Finland at that career stage. It's very heterogeneous, and it would be interesting for each country to try to analyze the data in more detail.

Q: What is the reason for these differences?

I.V.: Every country has different social policies, for example on maternity leave, and different practices in terms of promoting gender balance. Or, maybe women are not so encouraged to apply, or they lack mentoring. It might be useful for some governments to look at those countries that are particularly successful and try to identify the key factors that promote a better balance.

Q: You also compared success rates of men and women in ERC competitions and found that women have a success rate about 2 percentage points lower than men.

I.V.: Yes, I was concerned by this result, in particular because this has not improved over time. This has been observed in other granting agencies, for example at the European Molecular Biology Organization or the Human Frontier Science Program.

Several studies pointed out that women are at a disadvantage when their achievements are assessed, not because their research is of lower quality but because of a gender bias in research evaluation. In part, the problem is that we lack fully objective measures of scientific excellence: The traditional parameters used to measure it, such as citations metrics or previous research grants, may be biased.

Q: What did you do at the ERC to address the lower success rate?

I.V.: We were concerned that the gender balance in evaluation panels was a key issue, that those panels with less women would be harsher with women applicants. We compared the percentage of women in the panels and the success rates of women judged by this panel, and we found that there is no correlation between the two. This told us that increasing the number of women in our evaluation panels would not be a quick fix for the disparity in success rates.

I'm not saying that we should not aim at a proper gender balance in the panel. This will help women anyway; those that take part in the panels get higher visibility, more networking opportunities, and direct experience with the evaluation process. It's important, but it's not what is going to ensure equal success rates for women and men.

Q: This suggests that both men and women evaluators have an unconscious bias when they assess applications.

I.V.: Yes, the unconscious bias clearly affects both men and women. As women we think we will not be biased, yet most of us are. It's important to be aware of it and to fight against it, even if we cannot eliminate it. This is one of the things we encourage by briefing panel members.

Q: Which other measures did you put in place?

I.V.: We have introduced changes in the application form. Starting in 2010, we eliminated the self-evaluation section because women are not good at prizing themselves for their achievements. We also ask the applicants to select a given number of publications for their major contributions—five papers for Starting Grant applicants and ten for more experienced candidates. Overall, men have a higher number of publications than women, yet the quality of their total production is the same for men and women. We thought that focusing the evaluator's attention on the most relevant publications would eliminate that bias.

The same year, we also raised the maternity allowance to 18 months per child instead of 12 months, without women having to provide detailed justification.

We have also commissioned two studies: one to monitor the ERC's evaluation system and the other to better understand research career patterns, in particular unconventional career paths and the profiles of successful researchers. This will help us figure out what are the critical points where we can take action.

Q: What will the gender balance working group focus on in the future?

I.V.: We will continue monitoring carefully the gender aspect of the ERC granting data. Also, it's important to give visibility to our female grantees so we are careful to include them in any event that we organize. And we have to revise our gender equality plan, which expires this year.

Q: Any advice you would like to pass on to women scientists?

I.V.: I would like to encourage them to take part in networking activities, and accept invitations to panels and conferences as often as possible. It is also important to ask for feedback from colleagues with more experience when preparing a talk or an application.

It is encouraging that overall, 39% of the 6800 members of research teams funded by the ERC are female. We will of course need more time to know whether the students and postdocs in these teams become successful ERC applicants in the future.

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