Quantifying the gender bias in federally-funded STEM research

We all know that there is a gender disparity in STEM fields.  Is it harder for women in these fields to obtain federal funding compared to their male colleagues?  In 2013, Helen Chen published an article in Nature summarizing women’s continual challenges in science.    The infographic below from the paper describes the gap in NIH-funded research grants.

from Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap by Helen Chen, Nature Vol 595 Issue 7439 2013.

At first glance, the funding gap looks appalling – only 30% of the NIH’s grants are going to women!  However, there’s a missing ingredient here:  the fraction of NIH grant proposals submitted by women.  To get this information, let’s go back to 2008 for a minute.  Jennifer Pohlhaus and others at the NIH assessed the gender differences in application rates and success rates for 77% of the awards submitted in 2008, including training grants, midcareer grants, independent research grants (e.g., R01), and senior grants.  They found that the acceptance rates reflected the application rates for most NIH grants.  however, men had a higher success rate once they had received their first NIH grant and become NIH investigators.  So the funding gap in the infographic may not be tied to women having lower success rates in funding, but rather that fewer women are submitting grants.  A visualization of the data from the NIH is available on their webpage.

The Nature article (and many many other articles) point to the fact that women tend to leave science early in their education and careers.  In the 2008 NIH grant applications there were more female applicants than male applicants for three of the early career / training awards (F31, K01, K23), and two other early career awards (F30 and F32) showed no statistical difference between the number of male and female applicants.  However, male applicants significantly outnumbered female applicants in all midcareer, independent research, and senior career programs.

An evaluation of gender bias is currently underway for six other federal agencies: NSF, DOD, DOE, USDA, HHS, and NASA.  The audit, conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), will first release a report that investigates whether the agencies evaluate proposals based on potentially biased measures.  The GAO will then release a second report identifying potential factors that lead to the disparity in funding between men and women.  Once out, it will be an interesting read…

Slaughter Announces GAO Audit on Gender Discrimination in Federal STEM Research Funding | Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.


Responses to the sexist review by PLOS One

There has recently been a lot of attention on the journal PLOS One and their handling of a heavily gender-biased review received by an evolutionary biologist on a manuscript about gender differences in the Ph.D. to Postdoc academic transition.  PLOS One has taken a few actions, including asking the academic editor who handled the manuscript to step down from the editorial board and removing the offending reviewer from their database.  Dr. Michael Eisen, one of the founders of PLOS, has provided interesting commentary on the subject.

What’s just as troubling is that the reviewer clearly used his personal assessment of not only the authors’ gender but also their “junior” academic status in his criticism.  A blog that focuses on manuscript retractions has another summary of the issue.  Dr. Fiona Ingleby, one of the authors of the manuscript, tells the authors,

Megan and Fiona are pretty unambiguous names when it comes to guessing gender.  But in fact, the reviewer acknowledged that they had looked up our websites prior to reading the MS (they said so in their review). They used the personal assessment they made from this throughout their review – not just gender, but also patronising comments throughout that suggested the reviewer considered us rather junior.  – Fiona Ingleby

This has raised some major issues about the peer-review process, including whether a reviewer’s identity should ever be revealed in a single-blind or double-blind review.  Dr. Eisen addresses this in his blog posted above.  Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos wrote about removing publishing bias in science, here in the form of sexism. In response to Dr. Eisen’s post, she explicitly addresses the accountability that institutions and publishers need to have in place.

It will be interesting to see how PLOS One and other publishers address this now-viral issue, especially by the changes to the peer-review process.  Some have noted that the PLOS One editor failed in his/her duty by returning this gender-biased review to the authors instead of disregarding it, and it wasn’t necessarily a problem with the procedures.  But more and more journals are moving to different review styles, including Nature’s experiment with double-blind peer review.  If the PLOS One review had been double-blind, the reviewer may have been able to guess the gender of the authors but would not have been able to verify that, and especially not verify their current academic positions.

Gendered language in reference letters

…”nice” never got me a research grant or professional position. –Marcia McNutt

I previously posted an interactive visualization tool the shows language differences when reviewing male vs. female professors on ratemyprofessors.com, which shows a startling difference in word frequencies.  These reviews may have been hastily written by students, and they may not have thought much about the word choices they used when describing their professors.

What about letters of reference?  These are often critical pieces of information for acquiring a job, securing grant funding, and long-term career success.  A colleague just forwarded me an editorial that appeared in Science, written by Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief for Science Journals.  McNutt was recently tasked with reviewing small research grant proposals written by graduate students.  She found that over 10% of the proposals included reference letters with inappropriate content for the decision to fund the grant.  While the offending letter writers were both men and women, all of the affected applicants were women.  Letter writers should highlight the applicant’s qualifications, so one would think that these would be carefully vetted for gendered language.  Sadly, they are not.

Love Cards Against Humanity? You will now love them even more.

You can buy Cards Against Humanity on amazon.

The Cards Against Humanity game just did something remarkable: they will soon offer full-ride college scholarships for women in STEM fields.  The Science Ambassador Scholarship will be open for the Fall 2016 school year.  It will primarily be funded by the game’s new “Science Pack” expansion to the original game, according to their press release.

There’s Marie Curie…who else?

Two weeks ago I posted a list of famous women scientists and doctors from an old book I had.  This article emphasizes that while most people can name a women scientist, they often only name one: Marie Curie.

We Need to Stop Ignoring Women Scientists | WIRED.

After reading this article, I am looking forward to Rachel Swaby’s iBook 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World.