The persistent gender gap in science

The systemic factors wedging a persistent gender gap in science

Adrian Barnett knows a thing or two about research funding, having studied it for over 10 years. Looking back at his own career, the Queensland University of Technology statistician can also see why his path through academia has been easier than others.

“I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve never had any serious [career] disruption,” Barnett admits. “I’ve been able to skate through on the easier track and I recognise the advantages that that has given me, to be able to focus on my research.”

On the flip side, academia is littered with stories of researchers who have been pushed out by a system geared towards uninterrupted careers, stacked with barriers and plagued by gender bias and racial discrimination. The result: a persistent shortfall of women at the highest levels of research.

Read also: Women scientists are less likely to be credited for their work

Part of the problem is that science is hung up on numbers. “We look at the number of papers people produce when we really should be focusing on the quality of their ideas and the impact their research has had,” says Barnett. In a system that rewards researchers for publishing papers, those who take leave to raise children, prioritise their health, or care for elderly relatives are disadvantaged. “Publish or perish”, the saying goes.

But despite needing to explain gaps in research output, fierce competition for funding in a small research community means many researchers loath to disclose career disruptions. That’s what Barnett found in a new study which tells a sobering story that some academics, be they parents, carers, women or people of colour, know all too well: who succeeds in science and why.

“We look at the number of papers people produce when we really should be focusing on the quality of their ideas and the impact their research has had,”

Adrian Barnett, QUT

Among the nearly 250 medical researchers he surveyed, 13% said they had had career disruptions but never mentioned it in funding applications because they felt doing so would jeopardise their chances of grant success. In hypothetical scenarios, respondents were also especially reluctant to detail how mental health troubles, chronic illness or disability had disrupted their careers, fearing it would make them appear incapable.

As one female scientist said, “It’s such a fine line between making people see just how hard your circumstances have made your academic career and how hard won your success is, and giving them information [that] you are worried will make the reviewer question your ability to do your research.”

And the ramifications are not only huge, but costly. Early hairline decisions in grant applications can end up having a huge effect on people’s careers, Barnett says. It also shapes the whole ecosystem of research.

Why it matters who gets funded

Funding a diversity of people and projects is crucial to generating pioneering science, Barnett says. That insight is backed up by other research which shows women and minority researchers have more original ideas but their innovations are not recognised as fast or cited in papers as often as ideas from white, male scholars.

“If you fund the same people looking at the same things, you’re really limiting your ability to make those big, breakthrough discoveries,” says Barnett. Instead, the way to boost our chances of stumbling upon the next ground-shaking discovery is to spread research funding widely, he says, “because it’s just impossible to know where the next big thing comes from.”

“If you fund the same people looking at the same things, you’re really limiting your ability to make those big, breakthrough discoveries,”

Adrian Barnett, QUT

The problem is the Australian research system is critically underfunded. Success rates for winning career-sustaining grants from the country’s major research funders have halved over the past decade, down to abysmal lows of around 10%, the grim result of stagnant government investment in the sector. And when competition for funding is fierce, “that’s when you can’t afford to have any career disruptions,” says Barnett.

Jessica Borger, an immunologist and diversity advocate at Monash University, knows first-hand it can take years to regain lost momentum. “In academia, the minute we stop work, our research stops,” she says. But career breaks are just one and usually the most obvious factor driving researchers, namely women, out of science.

Read also: Meet 10 women with great science ideas

On top of short-term funding cycles, brutal workloads and chronic job insecurity, a “combination of factors – ranging from deep structural problems and subtle bias, to blatant discrimination and outright harassment – creates a toxic environment that pushes many women out,” biomedical scientist Darren Saunders wrote in a 2016 ABC News opinion article. He has since left academia for industry.

Meredith Nash, a sociologist at the Australian National University studying women’s leadership trajectories in science, says women scientists are also fighting against a tide of expectations, treading a fine line as leaders trying to assimilate to male norms without seeming aggressive and scaling brick walls to prove their competency.

“At the most basic level, people don’t see women as scientists,”

Meredith Nash, ANU

“At the most basic level, people don’t see women as scientists, so they’re working very hard to be seen as competent in the way that men are,” she says. She describes it as “the difference between going through your career with a headwind or tailwind”.

But looking at disparities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through the singular lens of gender only tells us so much, Nash says. “We have to be thinking much more expansively about identity,” she says. “Race, ethnicity, ability, age, sexuality – all these factors work together to influence how women experience STEM.”

Queer scientists and women of colour working in every field, from geology to physics, face greater risks of gender and racial harassment but rarely report it because it might cost them their career, Nash says. Hostile, male-dominated workplaces, cultural differences and sexist comments also make many people feel excluded, isolated and unwelcome. So people leave.

No quick fix

To stem the flow of women from science, Australia’s two largest research funding agencies, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), have in recent years introduced initiatives and overhauled funding schemes.

The NHMRC, which funds biomedical and health research, has thrown a truckload of strategies at the problem: trialling gender neutral language in grant applications; introducing five-year grants designed to provide greater flexibility and funding longevity to researchers; awarding other grants on the strength of proposed ideas and less so on the researchers’ track record; and reserving a separate pot of money to fund high-scoring female applicants that just missed on a grant.

“Gender disparities would be worse without such priority funding,” wrote NHMRC CEO Anne Kelso in a communique responding to the recent outcry from Australian academics about years-long gender imbalances in funding outcomes.

Women science
Figure 1. Numbers of applications and grants awarded by gender of CIA (2012–2021) – all schemes. Credit: Professor Anne Kelso AO CEO, National Health and Medical Research Council

But Borger, the immunologist whose data analysis exposing the stubborn trends in funding outcomes triggered the said outcry, says funding near-miss grants is a band-aid solution – “It’s concealing things, not fixing the problem” – and that the funder’s guidelines advising peer reviewers how to account for career disruptions are inadequate.

Her analysis of NHMRC funding outcomes, a joint effort with University of Melbourne stem cell researcher Louise Purton, also shows the newly created grants schemes have done little to remedy gender disparities since their introduction three years ago.

Despite applying at similar rates, men have been awarded a staggering 20% more grants than women, totalling an extra $300 million in funding. Funding is equitable amongst early-career researchers, but as seniority increases the chance of women winning grants shrinks, as does their payout. Hence why Borger and Purton argue that funders need to do more to retain women, and fast.

“It’s not just about retaining people now; it’s about the future. There is so much we are losing as a country,” Borger says.

Where to begin?

The cumulative toll that gender and racial biases inflict, although harder to measure than career disruptions, is plain to see, writ large across academia and in the wake of scientists who are leaving research in droves. The data on women’s experiences in academia also speaks volumes about the root causes of science’s gender gap, which can be traced back to the early stages of researchers’ careers.

Research shows that more women than ever are starting research careers, but they face greater obstacles from the get-go. Women receive significantly smaller grants as first-time investigators than those given to men. Those starting their first research labs also get paid less than their male peers and as a result can employ fewer staff to sustain research.

Once women nab a prestigious grant, though, their careers last almost as long as their male counterparts and they rival men in publication rates, too. However, women scientists often bear the brunt of teaching duties and service work, meaning they may have less time to produce award-winning research.

Women scientists often bear the brunt of teaching duties and service work, meaning they may have less time to produce award-winning research.

Speaking of awards, which help to advance careers, men and women begin on par in early-career prizes, but as researchers rise to senior levels, women are less likely to win prestigious research awards, and receive less money and less public recognition when they do. It’s a stark reflection of society’s biases towards the achievements of some groups over those of others that turns up on the pages of Wikipedia, too.

“Clearly, the problem is big enough now that we don’t necessarily need more data; we do actually need policies,” says Barnett of the mounting evidence. “But it’s still helpful to see where those problems are happening and where the policies need to be instigated.”

Read also: People is male

Zooming in on the critical juncture where emerging researchers first qualify as senior leaders in funding applications, and the point at which the gender gap in science first reveals itself, another analysis by Borger shows nearly one-third of women grantees were awarded the NHMRC’s near-miss funding compared to a tiny fraction of men who won grants.

“What it’s showing is there’s still a flaw in the peer review system,” says Borger. Rather than throwing high-scoring women a lifeline with near-miss funding, she says funders and the research community need to address why peer reviewers are consistently scoring women so low, even when they match men in leadership, seniority, and publication metrics.

Barnett found similarly. In his study, researchers acting as peer reviewers were inconsistent in how they assessed would-be applicants’ career breaks, granting less adjustment time to people who had experienced severe bouts of depression than for new parents or carers. “We all have biases; it’s about identifying those biases and trying to correct them,” Borger says.

What can be done?

Some funders have revamped the format of applications to make grant evaluation fairer. Barnett and his colleagues floated the idea of assembling an independent panel of trained health professionals to fairly assess career interruptions, especially mental ill-health and caring duties. Other suggestions include splitting funding into equal pots for men and women so that gender differences are neutralised.

Already, some space agencies have seen success in compelling researchers to anonymise their applications to use in-demand equipment. At the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which runs telescope operations for NASA, the gender gap has shrunk within a few years as a result, and more first-time investigators are being awarded telescope time to chase their big ideas.

But systemic change is slow, and as one simulation shows, prevailing biases however slight can have huge consequences on who gets what money. The Australian research community is also so small that peer reviewers know who is working on what even without their names or affiliations, so anonymising applications wouldn’t work, especially at senior levels, says Borger. Biases also seep into hiring, promotion, even recommendation letters.

“Clearly, the problem is big enough now that we don’t necessarily need more data; we do actually need policies,”

Adrian Barnett, QUT

Nash says what’s needed to address gender and racial disparities in science, to foster diversity, is a radical reframing of how academia operates: “You need to create an infrastructure sensitive to people’s needs rather than just throwing them in a toxic environment or a system that absolutely was not designed for them.”

She says the key to retaining people in science, just like any workplace, is psychological safety, a concept championed by the tech industry and business leaders, where people feel safe speaking up and throwing out ideas.

Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic – which hit women hardest – has amplified gender disparities that were slowly starting to shrink. Researchers now fear its impact may set women back by years, if not decades, compared to their male peers. “I worry about what we’re going to see in the coming years,” says Borger, who weathered the Victorian lockdowns with her young family and elderly mother. “That’s why we need to act sooner rather than later.”

Women science
Fig. 1. A. The comparison of the expected and observed proportion of female authors that publish during the COVID-19 pandemic. Green bars represent the expected proportion of female authors, estimated by the OLS model from the historical data from 2019. Orange bars are the observed proportion of female authors that publish during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Published in ArXiv 2020 COVID-19 amplifies gender disparities in research / Goran Murić, Kristina Lerman, Emilio Ferrara

Please login to favourite this article.