New Female Scientists Get $40,000 Less in Federal Grants Than New Male Ones, Study Finds

Bias in funding is an underappreciated barrier for women and underrepresented minorities in science.
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Recent surveys have found that at least one in five female science, engineering, and medical students report being harassed by faculty or staff at their schools.

The study is the latest to trace funding inequities that women and other underrepresented minorities face as they begin careers in science.

If you're a new scientist and just setting up your lab, one of the first things you'll want to do is apply for grants. Grants—often from federal science agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health—help you buy equipment, hire graduate students, and get started on ambitious experiments. They also help you show your employer that you're a promising researcher. So it's especially troublesome that a new study has found that, among first-time recipients of National Institutes of Health grants, female scientists tend to get almost $40,000 less than male ones.

"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," Teresa Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University who worked on the study, said in a statement.

"If you don't have the right kind of grant from NIH, you are less likely to be promoted," added Brian Uzzi, a professor of management at Northwestern who also worked on the study.

For their paper, Woodruff, Uzzi, and several other researchers examined a data set on first-time grant recipients from the National Institutes of Health. They used a computer program that deduced the scientists' genders from their first names. And they tried to check that the female and male grant recipients were equally qualified by comparing recipients who worked at similar universities. They also compared how many papers the men and women published each year, as well as how often those papers were cited by other scientists, which is a sign that the paper is helpful to others. The women and men in the data set didn't differ significantly in those measures.

On average, women in the data set got first-time grants of about $127,000. Men tended to get first-time grants of about $166,000. The difference was starkest at the Big Ten universities, which are large, public schools, located mostly in the Midwest. Big Ten female scientists' average first-time NIH grants were worth $82,000 less than their male peers'. Women did fare better in one well-known type of NIH grant, called the R01, for which they tended to receive $16,000 more than men, but it was not enough to make the overall average equal.

"NIH is aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science," the agency said in an emailed statement. The agency's own reporting shows that, on average, female scientists land NIH grants that are worth $74,000 less than men's. The email pointed to a working group and studies within the agency, aimed at reducing barriers to women's success in science. Last week, the institutes' director posted a public apology for being slow to address sexual harassment in science.

The new study, published in the journal JAMA, adds to others that have traced funding inequities that women and other underrepresented minorities face as they launch their careers in science. One study found that universities and hospitals tend to give fewer resources overall to new female scientists than male ones, while another, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health itself, found that black applicants to R01 grants are less likely to be accepted than equally qualified white applicants.