Why aren’t women in science applying for grants?

Publication date
Friday, 6 Mar 2020

If you look at the list of ANU College of Science research projects receiving funding in the 2020 round of ARC Discovery Grants, something stands out.

Ninety per cent of them are led by men.

Or, put another way: only four out of the 34 successfully funded projects have a female lead Chief Investigator.

On International Women’s Day, what can we learn from this data?

Professor Penny King, the lead Chief Investigator of a successfully funded project at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, says contrary to how it might appear, female scientists are actually just as successful as their male counterparts in receiving funding.

“The success rate of women is not that different from the success rate of men. In fact, women are slightly more successful, at about 34 per cent.”

The problem is the number of women who actually apply for the grants in the first place.

Only 13 per cent of applications from the College of Science had a female lead, despite women making up 29 per cent of our academics.

With a success rate of around 30 per cent for both men and women, this is why we’ve ended up with only four female-led Discovery projects. In 2020, only 12 female lead Chief Investigators applied.

In 2020! After so many positive advances in representation for women in STEM, and so much effort made to improve recruitment, why is it that female scientists still continue to apply for grants in such low numbers?

One answer is there are simply still too few women in the ANU College of Science.

At the time of applying for the grants, there were 152 female academics. Not all of these women would be eligible to apply for the grant, reducing even further the already disproportionately small pool of female applicants.

But when you look outside of science, to disciplines where there are more women, the problem persists. University-wide, only 19.5 per cent of applications in the 2020 round of Discovery Grants had a female lead Chief Investigator, even when female academic representation across campus stands at 39 per cent.

It’s an issue recognised by the University:

“Too few of the research grants submitted by the ANU are led by women,” says Professor Kiaran Kirk, Dean of the College of Science. “We need more women in senior roles in the University. And we need those staff in senior roles within the Research Schools to do more to encourage and support their women colleagues in taking a lead role in research projects, and in taking the ’senior author’ positions on the resulting publications.”

It’s also an issue recognised by the ARC, who have suggested a number of proposals for improving female participation in the grants process. One idea is to enforce gender balance among applicants at an institution level.

“This is not a problem you can fix by only increasing the numbers,” says Dr Marie-Hélène Rousseau, the University’s Research Funding and Development Manager. “You need to take a whole-of-life look at what it’s like for women in academia.”

Professor Adrienne Nicotra, from the ANU Research School of Biology, was another Chief Investigator successful in receiving funding. She says one reason for the low female participation rate is the timing of the application deadline.

“It means you have to work intensely right through the summer holidays.”

Women, scientists or otherwise, are more likely to do a disproportionate amount of childcare. While there is no perfect time to do the onerous paperwork of a grant application, the school holidays is possibly the worst time for people with extra parenting responsibilities.

The ARC has acknowledged this and will shift the DECRA deadline to be pre-Christmas from 2022. But for people with greater pressures on their time outside of work, “living and breathing the work of the application for two to three months of your life”, as Dr Rousseau describes it, will continue to be challenging, any time of the year.

“I think people are doing their own cost-benefit analysis,” Professor Nicotra says. “You need to accept that only one in three applications is likely to get up so you might say the onerous workload isn’t worth the risk of poor returns.”

Professor Nicotra remembers her own experience of having two young children while in the middle of her research career as being “challenging”.

“It’s hard to truly account for the impact on your research output of taking parental leave, even though there is the opportunity to explain it in your application.

“For a while, during that time, I had a feeling I might not break back into the ARC cycle. The only way around it was to apply again and keep applying and that is not going to be a priority for everyone.”

Professor King says that streamlining the grants application process to be less time-intensive could encourage more women to apply. She also says that applications should focus more on the research rather than the track-record of the Chief Investigator.

“I think it’s important, both in the grants process and in the University’s hiring processes, to be looking at academics in terms of potential, not just track record. It’s only by hiring women into permanent positions early in their careers, and putting in supports to retain them, that we’ll see more women proceeding along the pipeline to promotion.”

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual: “Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world.”

It’s a message echoed in advice from Associate Professor Rowena Ball, the node leader for science at the ANU Gender Institute.

To the women who have missed out on grants, in this or prior rounds, she says, “I would like to see all eligible women researchers at ANU applying, and re-applying, for grants.”

“There is safety in numbers."