Study reveals gender bias against Canada's female scientists

If you are a female scientist in Canada, seeking research grants, you are less likely to receive it if your application is reviewed based on the scientist involved in the project, rather than the topic of the proposed project.

As unbelievable as this sounds, this is true, as a new Canadian analysis in The Lancet has found that womenare less likely to win grants when focus of the application is who leads the research. The report confirms the complaints that the awarding of research grants is biased against female scientists.

According to the report on, the study, titled "Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science?", reviewedabout 24,000 applications which had been submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) — the federal government agency that awards approximately $1 billion in science grants annually.

Holly Witteman, who led the study, says CIHR had in 2014, established two new funding streams — the Project Grant Program, which focuses on funding "ideas with the greatest potential," while the Foundation Grant Program funds "research leaders."

When the grant applications were analyzed using the project grants, men and women performed similarly. The male applicants scored 13.5 percent while 12 percent of female applicants were successful.

However, when the foundation grant applications were analyzed — 13.9 percent of male applicants won grants, while only 9.2 percent of women won. The analysis, which also considered applicants age and field of study, found that this difference is even more obvious in the field of public health, where even though the female applicants outnumber male applicants, but men are still twice as likely to win Foundation grants — 14.1 percent to 7percent.

Speaking on this issue, neuroscientist Jennifer Raymond who is a researcher at California's Stanford University, said female scientists might find the CIHR analysis both discouraging and vindicating. She started that the Canadian study is another indication that the research funding "system is broken and really needs to be fixed."

"A lot of times women internalize and say 'Oh it's me, maybe, I'm not good enough, my male colleague is getting all of these awards and attention. I need to try harder,'" she told CBC News.

Raymond who has also analysed grant applications for the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. equivalent of CIHR further stated that Witteman's research indicates women are being passed over. "And I think this shows that the system is biased,”

"I sometimes hear comments that I wonder if they would be saying that if the applicant was a male scientist instead of a female scientist. But in any one of those cases, you can never really know what's motivating the comment. You can really only see the bias in the statistics." She says.

According to Raymond, this problem of gender bias in project funding, might be the reason why gender equality has been lacking in the sciences, especially at the leadership level.

"Small advantages over time can become big advantages. Getting funding can lead to more publications which can make it easier to attract good scientists to your lab, which in turn can help you do more good science and get more funding. So you know there's all of these different levels at which these biases play out."

A blinded application process to protect female researchers, would go a long way in fixing this problem.


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