Women and men get research grants at equal rates — if women apply in the first place

Supporting women in getting big research money could help close the academic gap

woman at lab bench

Women in biomedical science face plenty of obstacles to get to the top of their profession. But once they land a coveted funding grant, they do just as well as men, a new study shows.

Hotaik Sung/istock

Women face an uphill battle in biomedical science, on many fronts. There is bias in hiring and in how other scientists view their research. Fewer women are chosen to review scientific papers. Men still outnumber women at the ivory tower’s highest floors, and of course, women in science face harassment based on their gender. But once the top of the hill is in sight — once a female scientist gets a coveted major research grant — the playing field levels out, a new study shows. Women who get major grants stay funded and head their labs just as long as men. The hitch? Women must reach the top of the academic hill and apply for those grants in the first place.

“We’ve known from the data that’s publicly available that women are getting approximately 50 percent or more of the biomedical Ph.D.s, but when the time comes to apply for grants, the number drops precipitously,” says Judith Greenberg, the deputy director of the National Institute of General Medical Science in Bethesda, Md. Less than one-third of first-time applicants for the big grants from the National Institutes of Health are women.

In part, that number reflects the gender disparity in faculty positions in general. To get a big pot of money from the NIH, a scientist needs to have a position at an eligible institution, often a university. That’s not a trivial goal. For example, women received 53 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology in 2015. But in that same year women represented only 44 percent of assistant professors in biology, and only 35 percent of the full professorate.

Getting the money is crucial; science doesn’t happen without materials and people. “It costs a lot of money,” Greenberg explains. An NIH grant for several hundred thousand dollars per year pays for supplies and equipment, from a single mouse to a large expensive instrument. It pays for graduate students, postdocs and technicians. It even pays part of the scientist’s salary. “If you have grant support, you can do research,” Greenberg says. “If you lose grant support for any period of time, you’re out of the system.” 

In many ways, getting that first big NIH grant is a sign that a biomedical scientist has arrived. Greenberg and her colleagues wondered if there were gender differences in those grant recipients, and how long those scientists remained funded. They gathered data on grants funded by the NIH over nearly 20 years, from 1991 to 2010, funds that kept a total of 34,770 scientists (and their labs) in business.

Greenberg and her colleagues didn’t just look at a single grant submission, they also looked at whether that grant was renewed five years later. “A lab’s project is typically funded for four or five years,” she explains. “But during the course of that you come up with additional questions. … There’s always something else you want to do.” So a scientist will often apply to get their grant renewed. At the same time, he or she may be submitting other new or renewable grants, trying to ensure that their research keeps going.

Overall, they found, women submitted fewer applications per person than men, and tried to renew their successful grants less often. And when they went to renew those grants, they were less successful and got lower scores from grant reviewers than their male counterparts. But when Greenberg and her group equalized the men and women by when they were first funded and what kind of degree the scientists had (M.D./Ph.D. vs Ph.D., for instance), the differences smoothed out. If a woman could get that first big NIH grant, her chances of keeping her lab afloat were equal to a man’s.

“If you asked people out there, the common wisdom is that women aren’t going to survive in the system,” Greenberg says. “What makes this paper interesting is that it contradicts that assumption.” Greenberg and her group reported their findings July 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The finding that women didn’t submit as many funding applications, and that they didn’t try for renewal as often, matches other research in the field, notes Erica Cantrell Dawson, a social psychologist at Cornell University. She points specifically to work by Linda Babcock at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University showing that men get paid more — not because they are men, but because they are more likely to negotiate. “This makes that connection,” Dawson says. “If there’s a difference, it’s that women are less likely to look for repeat funding, and less likely to enter the funding pool in the first place.” In other words, women can be just as successful, they just need to compete. “It’s not about gender but about who’s playing the game.”

But there are darker sides to this relatively cheerful view, she notes. When women did apply to renew their grants, they got harsher reviews than men. “That also makes a connection to previous work,” Dawson says. “We know in evaluations … men are more are more likely to be judged on their potential and women on what they accomplished, so women have to accomplish more.”

Needhi Bhalla, a cell biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, agrees. “I don’t want to generalize to all women,” she says. “[But] I do think there is a sense that women’s applications have to be bulletproof, they have to be as compelling as they could be, because [women] might not get the benefit of the doubt.”

Bhalla also points out that the new findings address only a tiny slice of the women in biomedical science. The study focused on an area far down the academic pipeline, after a woman has already gotten a coveted academic job. “[That’s] the culmination of the biomedical career,” she explains. At that point, women in science have already faced a lot of hurdles. “Getting there is hard,” Bhalla says. “It’s not trivial to come up through grad school and postdoc and the job market when there are lots of messages — informal and formal — that women and their expertise are not necessarily valued in academic science.”

Dawson hopes that the findings will help departments and institutions support women in science, helping them apply, and renew, their grants. “We need to get support to pursue these opportunities,” she says. “I think a lot of people self-select out and don’t apply in the first place.” It’s also important to note that equality in one area of academic funding is only one small part of the academic experience. “It’s a specific dataset,” she says. “It doesn’t negate the other challenges that women face.”

It’s good that the NIH has demonstrated that women and men have equal odds of maintaining their funding, Bhalla says, but that news doesn’t make up for other gender disparities. “I think people are always looking for silver linings, which I think is fair,” she says. Unfortunately, silver linings don’t make the clouds less gray.

“Maybe the silver lining shouldn’t be that when you get the [big grant] you are fine,” Bhalla says. Instead, she suggests, perhaps scientists and institutions should acknowledge that women face an uphill battle — and then say what exactly they’re doing to flatten that hill. The discussion might not seem immediately cheerful, but, she says, “It seems to me a much more hopeful conversation.”

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society