Lack of women professors means research grants are skewed towards men

Trying to readdress the balance. Lecture via Matej Kastelic/

Our new research has shown that when women working in the social sciences apply for a research grant, they are just as likely as men to win funding. But while there is equality in the success rate, the fact that so few women are in professorial positions applying for grants means men still get more research money than women in the social sciences.

The role and inclusion of women in science has attracted considerable attention recently. Rightly so. Cambridge physicist Athene Donald has recently highlighted that girls’ early years and their socialisation as they develop, is likely to have a role in women’s subsequent careers. However, we also need to focus on how women succeed once they have embarked on a career in academia.

One important measure of success is the receipt of competitive research funding. Our analysis, published in a Nature comment piece, considers whether men and women submitted similar numbers of applications, were equally successful and were awarded grants of similar size by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Previous studies show that women’s success rates are worse than men’s in European Research Council funding: for example, in physical sciences and engineering, women submit 17% of grant applications and receive 15%. While data from the Wellcome Trust show that women in biomedical sciences receive significantly smaller grants than men.

We compared how well women and men fare in the social sciences. It is true to say that women are better represented across the social science disciplines than they are in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, but we remain far from equality.

Overall, we found that between 2008 and 2013, accounting for academic position, success rates for women and men were equal and the size of grant awarded was similar at the ESRC. Indeed, women aged under 40 were significantly more successful than men and received slightly larger grants.

However, overall women received only two-fifths of the ESRC funding over the period. This meant women received 41% of the £127m distributed. The underlying reason for this was the representation of women in senior positions. While there was a similar number of men and women in non-professorial social science positions in the UK, less than a quarter of professorial positions were held by women, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Women professors were as successful at winning grants as their male counterparts, but because there were fewer of them, far more grants were awarded to men.

Structural impediments

Fortunately, much is already being done in the UK to try and redress this imbalance. The Research Councils have published a concordat which includes expectations for both themselves and the institutions that receive their funding to promote diversity and equality. Notably, under Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, the National Institute for Health Research took bold steps to link eligibility for funding to performance in the Athena Swan programme, which awards institutions and departments for their work supporting women.

Even so, we argue that there are structural impediments to gender equality in academia. Across UK academia as a whole, less than a fifth of all professors are women and, according to the University and College Union, at the current pace of change it will take 39 years for women to be represented equally among the UK professoriate.

Leading the way: Ruth Luthi-Carter, chair of neurobiology of behaviour at the University of Leicester. University of Leicester.

Men still do not have the same work-life balances or child or parental care responsibilities as women, so unless structural changes are implemented within universities and funding agencies, change will be slow. Like many universities, our own institution, Leicester, has recognised the need to rebalance – and we are taking practical steps, including championing women’s roles, revising our promotion criteria and encouraging both women and men to recognise and react to inequality.

Gender equality issues must be embedded in work practice and women’s career progression should be supported by promotion criteria that allow for career breaks and part-time working by focusing more on the quality than the quantity of publications and grant awards.

Our research also includes a series of recommendations, including that all funding agencies should submit their data annually to independent scrutiny of gender differences in applications, success rates and award sizes. The funding agencies and universities should also come together to discuss these and other strategies.

Global action

We are therefore supporting the UN global HeForShe movement, which aims to engage and encourage one billion men and boys to take action against the gender inequality which women face across the world. Ten prime ministers, ten CEOs of global companies and ten universities have been chosen worldwide to act as HeForShe impact champions to lead this initiative, and we are proud both that the University of Leicester is one of those ten, and that the UN will be launching its UK initiative at Leicester later this month. This seems particularly fitting, as when the university was founded in 1921, eight of the first nine students were women.

There is no good reason for women to be under-represented in senior posts. It is clearly not a result of innate differences in intelligence or ability. Gender equality is not a matter of being “nice” to women. In the higher education context it means ensuring that the very best people go into and remain in research and teaching for the benefit of society. Women in our universities are just as imaginative and talented as men but, sadly, our academic system has worked against them since its very beginning. We really must change this.