Grant review that focuses on researcher credentials favors men

man at microscope

When research grant proposals are evaluated mainly on the credentials of the researcher, and not the proposal itself, there is a bias in favor of men.

Gender bias in the workplace is not new. Pay gaps, hiring discrimination and harassment all demonstrate differences in opportunities and outcomes on the basis of gender.

As researchers work to shed light on gender bias, academia itself is not immune. For example, research has found that in hiring searches, committees take the relationship status of women, but not men, into account. This study indicates that women with partners who had high-status jobs were excluded from positions if there were single candidates available. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, only 32 percent of full professors were women.

New research conducted by scholars at four Canadian institutions probes another area of academia in which gender might play a role, examining differences in the funding success of proposed academic studies.

The researchers reviewed the outcomes of 23,918 grant applications submitted from 2011 to 2016 to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Since 2014, CIHR has evaluated applications through two separate programs. One focuses primarily on the caliber of the lead researcher on the application, the other emphasizes the quality of the proposal itself.

When the proposals were evaluated on their own merits, the researchers found that the probability of funding success was 0.9 percentage points higher for male principal investigators. When the review focused on the credentials of the lead researcher, however, there was a 4-percentage-point gap that favored men.

This points to a bias against women in grant review, according to the study’s authors. “Gender gaps in funding stem from female principal investigators being evaluated less favorably than male principal investigators, not from differences in the quality of their science,” they write. The authors do not attempt to explain the reasons for this bias.

Though the study examined Canadian data, other research indicates that funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) goes to men more commonly than women, and women’s projects receive less money, on average. Research published in Academic Medicine indicates that gender bias might persist in the NIH grant review process despite changes to its format. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed research grant awards from a number of federal agencies and found differential success rates, which favored men, at the Departments of Defense and Energy.

Last updated: February 6, 2018


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Citation: Witteman, Holly O.; Hendricks, Michael; Straus, Sharon; Tannenbaum, Cara. "Female Grant Applicants are Equally Successful when Peer Reviewers Assess the Science, but Not When They Assess the Scientist," preprint, bioRxiv, doi: 10.1101/232868.