April 18, 2021

International Day of Women and Girls in Science: The Obstacle Race of Women Scientists to Get Funding | Science

International Day of Women and Girls in Science: The Obstacle Race of Women Scientists to Get Funding | Science

There is a glass ceiling in science that prevents women from reaching the highest positions. To lack of role models in the media and in textbooks since they are small, they add up the problems of family and work conciliation, the obstacles so that your work is recognized and the difficulty in obtaining financing for their projects. Women are disadvantaged compared to men when peer review evaluates the applicant instead of the quality of their scientific projects. This is confirmed by the researchers of a study published this Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet after analyzing almost 24,000 applications for scholarships at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

"In all countries and disciplines, studies show that male researchers receive more research funds than women. The gender gap in research funding derives from the scientist's evaluations, not from science, "explains Holly O. Witteman, co-author of the study. She is a researcher at Laval University in Quebec City (Canada) and considers that "the bias in the review of the grant, whether individual or systemic, prevents the best research being financed".

The researchers have drawn these conclusions after doing an experiment. In 2014, they separated into two groups the applications received for the scholarship programs of the projects that began between 2011 and 2016: in one of them the review would focus on the applicant and the other on the proposed research. The first one evaluated the scientist's leadership, the importance of their contributions and their productivity, while in the second the quality and importance of the proposed idea and approach were taken into account.

A total of 7,093 researchers, of whom 63% were men and 37% were women, applied for 23,918 financial aid. Finally, 16% of the researchers received the grant. After analyzing all the requests, the authors of the study found that when 75% of the score corresponded to the quality of the proposed projects, the probability of women obtaining a subsidy was 0.9 percentage points lower than that of men. However, when mainly reviewing the leadership and experience of the principal investigator, the difference was four percentage points. That is, women are less successful when reviewers are explicitly asked to review the principal investigator.

Although the study has been carried out in Canada, this problem is common in other countries of the world. "In the Mediterranean countries we have a culture that is still very patriarchal and sometimes it is even frowned upon that a woman who has worked under the direction of a researcher has good results", explains Lola Pereira, vice-president of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT) and Professor of Petrology and Geochemistry at the University of Salamanca.

This scientist outside the study points out that women not only find more difficulties than men when it comes to finding funding. "The same thing happens in the evaluation of projects, research works and abstracts that are sent to congresses," he says. She has suffered this discrimination in the first person: "Throughout my professional career I have had tremendous obstacles. It took me a lot to get here. "

For example, he recalls how he was always rejected by the projects he submitted to the national calls and, after submitting allegations, they were granted. "In the Junta de Castilla y León, the first time I presented a research project, they told me: 'The content is very good but not that you lead it, I think you should move on to the team and let someone else lead the project.' They tell you those things and they crush you. You have to draw strength from all the sites to keep fighting and progressing. " Even so, it emphasizes that in Spain the situation is changing "little by little" since the approval of the Law of Equality in 2007.

Sexist bias

It is not the first time that a study shows with data that there is a subtle bias about the abilities of women within science. A study published in PNAS in 2012 by a group led by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, psychologist at Skidmore College (USA), already suggested that university professors, regardless of their gender, evaluate more favorably a candidacy for laboratory director if it is signed by a man.

That same year, A study of the Yale University published in the same magazine It also showed this discrimination. The researchers sent 127 professors from six public and private universities in the United States several candidates for the position of head of laboratory of a recent graduate. Identical records were headed under two different names: Jennifer and John. Although it only changed the name, the results were different. Nominations with female names were evaluated significantly worse than those of men. In addition, they were offered lower wages than they were.

  Lola Pereira, geologist at the University of Salamanca, at the Geominero Museum in Madrid.
Lola Pereira, geologist at the University of Salamanca, at the Geominero Museum in Madrid. THE COUNTRY

Compared to men, women are less likely to be seen as scientific leaders and contribute more work for less credit in publications. This is what Pereira says, which explains that "promotions are made based on published works and the H index, which measures the quotations a person has in their publications": "Because of the character that we women have, we do not usually mention ourselves same when writing a job while men do. This is reflected when requesting projects and in internal and external promotions. "

The research published on Thursday takes into account the age of the principal investigators and the situation in the field of health. However, it does not value other data such as race, ethnic origin, disability or other characteristics that, according to researchers, are associated with disparities in funding and career progression. Therefore, they believe that future studies should analyze all types of biases.

One possible solution to reduce these types of barriers that women face, according to Holly O. Witteman, would be for programs to finance projects instead of people. There are already some entities that have shown interest in this type of methods, according to Pereira: "When you make a request, it is not sent to evaluate the page where you put the personal data." A large part of the scientific community also supports the fact that the committees that evaluate the candidatures and the projects are joint. For example in Spain, in 2005, it was forced by law to in the courts and decision commissions of the CSIC there were 40% of women. "Women, having had so many problems to reach the top, are more aware that evaluations have to be objective. A woman is not better because she is a woman. It can be better, the same or worse. No matter the genre, what counts is science ", concludes Pereira.


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