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The Sciences Where Women Get as Much Funding as Men

September 9, 2015, 5:20pm
Image: Photographee.e/Shutterstock

Previous studies have found a significant gender gap in funding for scientific research. No real surprise there—it's part of a persistent inequality in science academia that manifests itself in massively male-dominated publications, pitifully low representation of women in STEM fields, and insidious gender bias directed to those who do make it through the door.

But a new study in Nature found one area where distribution of funding, at least, isn't so unfair: social sciences. Researchers at the UK's University of Leicester, led by president and vice-chancellor Paul Boyle, found that there was little difference between rates of men and women applying for and obtaining grants from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)—which provides funding for work in the social sciences—between 2008 and 2013. The size of the grants given to male and female researchers also did not differ much.

Boyle (who was also chief executive of the ESRC from 2010 to 2014) explained on the phone that they had controlled for academic position and other variables. "Once we'd done that, we do indeed find that women are just as successful as men; the grants awarded are of a similar size, they're not significantly different, and in fact, if you look at the differences, younger women under the age of 40 are actually slightly more successful and receive slightly larger grants than men, although the differences aren't significant," Boyle said.

"Social scientists have long been engaged with feminist research-management practices…which have disrupted male hierarchies."

Why are social sciences doing better on the gender equality front? The researchers suggest a few reasons, one of the most obvious being that there are more women involved in the social sciences, which include disciplines such as economics, political science, and sociology. More intriguingly, they offer a potential reason for greater gender equality across the board: social scientists just get feminism more than other scientists.

"Social scientists have long been engaged with feminist research-management practices, with the guiding principles of consultation, collaboration and social equality, which have disrupted male hierarchies," the researchers wrote.

"We think that social sciences have been very cognizant of gender and feminist issues for rather long," said Boyle. "Obviously social sciences is where a lot of this research is undertaken, and has been for decades." Perhaps social scientists, male and female, are therefore more attuned to gender issues affecting their own workplace.

This ties in with the University of Leicester's broader commitment to gender equality as one of ten global academic institutions to be involved in the United Nations "HeForShe" movement, which aims to engage men in women's rights issues, and of which Boyle is an official "champion."

But while it's a rare moment of not-terrible news for gender equality in academia, it's not all sunshine and roses and equal opportunities. The new study also found that, while men and women of the same academic position received around the same funding, men still took 59 percent of the total amount allocated—because there are still more men in the top positions.

Men make up 76 percent of professorial roles, while the overall workforce is split more or less 50-50. This lack of access to senior positions for women is obviously still a problem. The researchers write that young women "will continue to match men only if structural changes are implemented within universities and funding agencies," and that across disciplines it'll take 39 years for women to be represented equally in the UK as professors.

Boyle noted that this wasn't a new observation and that women were gradually being awarded more professorial roles. One way he suggested universities could help redress the balance was reconsidering promotion criteria to be more friendly to candidates who have had career breaks (as women are more likely to take time out to have children, for instance). "So one of the recommendations is we really have to focus on quality and not quantity so much," he said.

"What we want in the end is to promote the brightest and the best, and that doesn't always equate to the people who have had the most publications or the most grants," he added.

XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.