Study: Female Researchers Get Less Financial Support than Males

27 April, 2019

Higher education is an important step on the path towards a meaningful, well-paying career in almost every modern job field. But becoming a doctor or scientist, for example, requires much more than just completing difficult classes or passing major exams.

For many college students, wide-reaching, long-term research is very important to gain necessary skills and prove one's abilities. A big part of the research process includes getting financial support to cover the costs of the work.

Researchers usually raise this money by writing proposals asking outside organizations for a given amount of money, called a grant, to fund their work. These groups consider the value of the work in comparison to the cost to make their decision whether to approve or deny grants.

However, a recent study argues that funding organizations do not consider only the quality or possible impact of research when deciding on grant applications. The study suggests that perhaps groups also consider the gender of the applicant.

It reports that female researchers receive less grant money on average than males. Experts worry that this could harm the careers of researchers.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois released their findings in the JAMA Network publishing service in March. They looked at all the amounts of money the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, gave to first-time grant seekers between 2006 and 2017. The United States government agency offers about $37 billion a year in grants. It is the world's largest public funder of biomedical research.

The researchers found that in the ten year period, projects led by women seeking their first grant received an average grant of $126,615. NIH grants to men seeking their first grant amounted to about $40,000 more, on average.

In this June 1, 2017, photo, Michelle Bebber, a PhD archeology student at Kent State University, loads a bow with a recreated ancient arrow in Kent, Ohio.
In this June 1, 2017, photo, Michelle Bebber, a PhD archeology student at Kent State University, loads a bow with a recreated ancient arrow in Kent, Ohio.

Brian Uzzi says these differences are harmful in several ways. He is a professor of leadership in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He helped with the study.

Uzzi notes that getting less money does not just affect a person's ability to complete their research. He notes the ability to earn grant money is very important for a researcher looking to move forward in their career.

Many students lead their first major research project while they are seeking a graduate degree of some kind, Uzzi says. Colleges and universities may help cover some of the costs of that work. But they want to know if a researcher's work is interesting and valuable to the world at large and whether or not it will bring in positive attention.

Having a group like NIH offer you a grant is a great way to demonstrate that to a school, and get the school to continue supporting you, he adds. The more support you have the better, as the more research you get funded, the more work you will be able to publish.

Publishing is especially important as student researchers work their way into positions as professors, Uzzi says. This is a common path, as a job as a professor usually provides a person with plenty of time to do more research. And a major consideration colleges and universities make when employing a professor is how much research that person has already published.

In the U.S., some schools offer lifetime positions, known as tenure, to professors who, among other things, have published the most notable research.

Uzzi argues that there is almost equal amounts of importance placed on funding research as there is on publishing. So any differences in the size of grants women are receiving creates barriers for them. A smaller than expected grant may affect the reach of their projects. It can also suggest that their work has less value. And it may even lead to women leaving research positions at colleges and universities in order to avoid the difficulties of publishing entirely.

This is not just a problem for these women alone, say Uzzi.

"Lots of research shows that gender diversity on creative teams, on scientific teams, in the classroom, really enhances the rate at which discoveries take place and ... ideas get discovered and put together in new and different ways, which really helps out everybody in society," he told VOA.

The JAMA study did not look at why male and female researchers might receive unequal grants. But Heather Metcalf says she has some ideas. She is chief research officer for the Association for Women in Science.

Metcalf says that throughout her career she has witnessed unfair treatment of women in science fields. Some of it comes out in the open through bad behavior. Yet there is also a great deal of inequality that many people in these fields fail to recognize.

"It isn't just isolated incidents that don't have an impact on one another over time. It adds up and has an exponential impact on a person's career," Metcalf noted.

For example, she says, the people making the decisions on a grant proposal might see a woman listed as the lead researcher and change their opinion without even knowing they are doing so. Traditional thinking that men are better at science than women is still common, she says, even though there is no research to support that idea.

Such cultural lessons are taught at an early age, and can even prevent young girls from developing interests in research fields, says Metcalf. She and Brian Uzzi both hope this latest study will bring more attention to this form of gender inequality and lead to changes in the grant consideration process.

The NIH does operate a special program that works to remove barriers for women in science called Women in Biomedical Careers. VOA has tried to contact the agency several times about the JAMA study. By the time of publication, NIH representatives had not provided any comment on the study.

NIH is currently in communication with the researcher to better understand the data presented in the paper.

The NIH is not alone in its seemingly unbalanced treatment of male and female researchers. Last year, a study found that the majority of cancer research grants in the United Kingdom went to projects led by men.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. What kinds of gender inequality are common at colleges and universities in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

fundv. to provide money for something

impactn. a powerful or major influence or effect

application(s) – n. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan

gendern. the state of being male or female

graduate degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after at least one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree

positiveadj. good or useful

diversityn. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

enhance(s) – v. to increase or improve something

isolatedadj. happening just once

exponentialadj. very fast

verifyv. to prove, show, find out, or state that something is true or correct