A new study published in JAMA reveals a significant gender disparity between the size of research grants awarded to projects led by first-time investigators. As Andrew Jacobs writes for The New York Times, researchers from Northwestern University report that on average, the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) doles out an extra $41,000 in grant money to applications listing men as their principal authors.
According to the Chicago Tribune’s Alison Bowen, the Northwestern team analyzed some 54,000 N.I.H. grants awarded between 2006 and 2017. Based on this data, the scientists found that female applicants received a median grant of $126,615, while men received an average of $165,721.
Such gaps in funding place women at a disadvantage from the earliest stages of their careers, study co-author Teresa Woodruff explains in a statement.
“With less federal funding, women can’t recruit the same number of grad students to work on their research or buy the same amount of equipment as their male counterparts,” Woodruff says. “A funding disadvantage in the formative years of a woman scientist’s career can be especially handicapping because research shows that it is likely to snowball over time.”
Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty points out that the researchers only compared first-time grant applicants who were at similar stages in their careers. At the time of application, both male and female principal investigators boasted a median of two published articles per year across two separate research areas. These articles were cited by other scientists in the field an average of 15 times.
“It means women are working harder with less money to get to the same level as men,” Woodruff tells The New York Times’ Jacobs. “If we had the same footing, the engine of science would move a little faster toward the promise of basic science and medical cures.”
Gender-based funding differences persisted when the team broke down grants by institution: As Francie Diep reports for Pacific Standard, women scientists from the so-called Big Ten universities—a group of 14 public schools centered in the Midwest—received first-time N.I.H. grants worth $82,000 less than their male peers. At the Ivy League level, the gap in funding was closer to $19,500—a smaller but still notable disparity. Finally, at the top 50 N.I.H.-funded institutions, Reuters’ Lisa Rapaport observes, women received a median award of $93,916, while men received $134,919.
Overall, female scientists’ award amounts only outpaced men’s when it came to R01 grants, which Inverse’s Sarah Sloat notes support health-related research. On average, women applying for R01 grants received $15,913 more than men.
In a statement, N.I.H. representatives said the agency is “aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science.” Citing a Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers as evidence of its commitment to redressing the field’s gender imbalance, N.I.H. further told Inside Higher Ed’s Flaherty that it would co-fund a study dedicated to the issues raised by the Northwestern research.
Speaking with Reuters, Carrie Byington, dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, outlines several explanations for the gender funding gap: Overarching differences in salary could be at play, as personnel costs constitute a significant portion of grant budgets. “If women are paid less than men, the overall budgets might be smaller,” Byington, who was not involved in the study, explains.
Rosemary Morgan, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was also not involved in the study, posits that women scientists could be requesting less money than men. It’s also possible, however, that women ask for comparable amounts but simply receive smaller awards.
“Each [scenario] reflects gender bias in the system—in either the ways in which women are brought up to ask for less or the system not seeing their work as equal to that of men’s,” Morgan tells Reuters.
“This matters for patients as researchers tend to research areas that are relevant to them—with women more likely to research issues related to women’s health,” Morgan concludes. “If female researchers are receiving less funding then the issues that female researchers are studying are receiving less money.”