Women in life sciences are less likely to be awarded scholarships than men with similarly relevant merits, according to research by Schiffbaenker et al. in their contribution to the book Inequalities and the paradigm of excellence in academia they explain that prejudice creates women peer review panels must prove more than their male counterparts. Strikingly, a higher proportion of women on the panels even appear to have a negative effect on the success of female candidates.
The researchers analyzed more than three thousand grant applications from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2014. Young researchers can apply for the ERC Starting Grant two to seven years after their PhD. In 2014, graduates could receive a maximum of 1.5 million euros. The ERC uses in its assessment peer reviewpanel.
Little awareness in the life sciences
The panels assess the candidates on the basis of scientific expertise, the researchers write. Excellence derives in part from scientific findings, such as publications in high-performance magazines, quotes and previously awarded scholarships. The researchers adjusted for these variables to examine whether the candidate’s gender affects the chance of receiving the Starting Grant, regardless of his or her scientific merit.
The analysis shows a clear inequality between the sexes; female applicants were awarded the Starting Grant significantly less frequently than male applicants. The difference was greatest in the life sciences (biology, biochemistry and physiology). According to the researchers, therefore, there is a masculine culture in this field and there is little awareness of gender-related discussions. In addition, life sciences has a lively discussion about scientific expertise, which mainly focuses on impact and top journals such as. Nature and science†
ERC criteria not clear
Interviews with 28 panel members from life sciences showed that the assessment of candidates is not optimal in practice. The definition of expertise is vague and the assessment of candidates is inconsistent and informal. Examples of criteria are scientific quality of the research and the researcher, originality and independence.
The interviewed panelists indicated that they were unsure of the significance and the desired application of the prescribed assessment criteria. Some members even admitted that they were not aware of the ERC’s criteria because they serve on several committees and panels. During their assessment, they fall back on personal beliefs about scientific excellence. In addition, panelists experience time pressure, making them more likely to judge candidates based on prejudice and stereotypes rather than merit.
Moreover, because the criteria for Starting Grant are not well-defined, panelists are concentrating on various things, the researchers write. For example, for some panel members, independence is mainly about a clear distance from previous supervisors (physically or in research). According to an interviewed panelist, women are more likely to collaborate with people they already know, while men are more ambitious to start their own research.
Due to the assumption that women are less independent than men, they are judged more severely in this area, the researchers write. This creates a double standard. According to some panelists, having multiple publications with a supervisor as co-author does not seem like a problem for a male candidate, while women are judged more negatively for that reason. The same goes for mobility. “Some men always stay at the same university, but everyone thinks they have a good resume,” said one panelist. “At the same time, it is sometimes mentioned if a woman has not been abroad during her PhD or after.”
Women walk a thin line
Panelists further indicated that the ability to convince others of the importance of their research is an important factor in the assessment. A candidate lives up to expectations when they confidently communicate the research proposal. Candidates are often instructed to do so. Panelists indicated that they saw this self-confidence more often in men, while women appeared more modest. The stereotype that women are cautious and expectant requires them to prove their ability to be confident and confident.
But this stereotype also puts women at a higher risk of appearing overconfident, the researchers said. As a result, women walk a thin line; they get less room to be modest because they have to prove themselves again than men, but they also get less room to be confident because confident behavior is not expected of women. “For example, women are expected to behave like men (but not too much),” the researchers write.
More women in panels have a negative effect
To tackle gender inequality, the European Research Area (ERA) aims to increase the proportion of women on selection panels. It is expected that women have a better chance of success if there are more women on the panel. To compare the success of female candidates with the proportion of women on the panels, the researchers analyzed the composition of all 150 panels in the ERC.
Remarkably, it turned out that a higher proportion of women have a negative effect on the chances of female candidates. According to researchers, it may be due Queen-effect. To achieve success in science, women adapt their behavior to male standards, making them more negatively responsive to behaviors they see as typically feminine.
An equal proportion of men and women in panels is therefore not enough to tackle gender inequality. Awareness of stereotypes and gender inequality is more important than increasing the number of women peer reviewpanels, the researchers conclude.