Skip to main content

What Social Science Grants Say About Women in Science

Researchers find much less bias in the grant process compared with other sciences, but highlight the need to break down institutions that hinder women's careers.
(Photo: Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock)

Despite efforts that began in earnest in the late 1990s to understand and combat gender bias in academia, science remains something of a boy's club, whether it's who's hired, who gets trained, or what the top men in science think of women. Now, researchers in the United Kingdom suggest that, while social science funding is less biased, men still earn more money than women simply because there are more of them in senior positions—an observation that might hold key lessons for other disciplines.

"One of the key drivers of academic inequality is the receipt of competitive grant funding," write University of Leicester researchers Paul Boyle, Lucy Smith, Nicola Cooper, Kate Williams, and Henrietta O’Connor in a Nature comment article. Previous research has revealed that women receive smaller grants in biology and medicine in the U.K. and United States, and European Research Council statistics show they're awarded fewer of the grants they apply for compared with men.

Female professors are actually slightly more likely to apply for grants than male professors, but only 24 percent of social science professors are women.

Women in social science, on the other hand, don't seem to have this problem—at least not exactly. Looking at data from U.K. Economic and Social Research Council research grants between 2008 and 2013, Boyle and his team found that, of the £127 million awarded, 59 percent went to men, but not because the grant-awarding process was biased. On the contrary, men and women had equal chances of getting funded, with a success rate of 18 percent, and they received similar amounts of money. In fact, conditional on having their proposals approved, female professors were awarded £349,000 on average, just shy of 10 percent more than their male counterparts, though the difference was not statistically significant.

So if the grant process is fair, why is there a gender gap? At first glance, women as a group apply for fewer grants, but that belies a deeper cause—namely, that there are simply fewer women, particularly in senior social science posts. As individuals, female professors are actually slightly more likely to apply for grants than male professors, but only 24 percent of social science professors are women.

There's hope in the fact that women are equally represented in junior positions as well as grant applications and awards, but maintaining that success as they age means changing institutions and societal mores that still strongly favor men. "[A]s these women rise through the ranks they will not experience the same work-life balance as men," the researchers write, "the same child or parental care responsibilities, or the same cultural attitudes to the importance of their labour," all of which lead to fewer women in senior posts and ultimately less money going to women.

"Significant change is unlikely, without some bold re-structuring," the teams writes. The authors argue that universities should encourage men to champion gender equality and do a better job supporting women's career progression through promotion criteria that emphasize quality over quantity, potentially easing conflict between work and the rest of women's lives.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.