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‘Less capital, equal outcomes’: Female academia & the problems with funding

Male and female principal investigators should get “equitable grant dollars for similar grant types” going forward, to promote “women’s abilities to succeed long-term.” Source: AFP/Saul Loeb

Women receive smaller research grants than men, a new study has found.

Analysing National Institute of Health grants from 2006 to 2017, researchers found that the median grant for female first-time principal investigators (PIs) was US$$126,615. For men? It was $165,721, according to the study published in JAMAThis finding applies across all grant and institution types.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Teresa Woodruff, co-author of the new study said the finding is a call to ensure that male and female PIs get “equitable grant dollars for similar grant types” going forward, to promote “women’s abilities to succeed long-term.”

An academic’s funding and publication metrics are key areas for consideration when it comes to promotion and tenure committees. Thus, when women “have disproportionately less capital — both through start-up and their grants – yet are required to have equal outcomes, it means we are working harder for the same end points,” said the J Watkins Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Associate Provost for Graduate Education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

The NIH is an agency of the US Department of Health and one of the world’s foremost medical research centres. Source: AFP/Saul Loeb

These latest findings provide a sobering reminder that academia is still a man’s world. Aspiring female academics must be aware that female scientists are 20 percent less likely to become PIs than a similarly qualified male peer, are held back by greater administrative workloads and female PhD recipients are paid a median annual salary that is US$18,000 less than their male colleagues.

When they become mothers, they “face motherhood citation penalty” and are mire likely to leave their STEM careers (and never to return after their children grow up) as they shoulder a disproportionate share of caregiving duties.

In the latest study, researchers also found that among the 10 biggest grant types received, female first-time PIs received a median award of US$305,823 compared to US$316,350 for men.

At the Big Ten universities, the gap is even bigger. Female PIs here got a median of US$66,365 versus US$148,076 for men. Big Ten universities refer to institutions that belong to the similarly-named prestigious intercollegiate athletic conference, most of which are located in the US Midwest and include names such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Female PIs at Ivy League universities also received significantly smaller grants, ie US$52,190 compared to US$71,702 for men.

The only area where female academics received more was in the common and coveted R01 grants, where they received a median of US$15,913 more than men. The R01 grants refer to an award made to support a discrete, specified, circumscribed project to be performed by the named investigator(s) in an area representing the investigator’s specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the NIH.

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