Biased outcomes

The results of this year’s Norwegian Research Council (NFR) FRIMEDBIO call have been announced. This is an open call for proposals in medicine and biology (parallel calls exist for other subjects under the FRIPRO umbrella).

Here is a summary of the outcomes: all is not good.

Proposal type Number of proposals Successful proposals
Total Women Men Total Women Men
N % N % N %
Researcher projects 338 115 223 33 10 12 10 21 9
Young research talent 118 49 69 21 18 5 10 16 23
Mobility-stipend 22 12 10 6 27 4 33 2 20
Total 478 176 302 60 13 21 12 39 13

I’m not going to complain today about the pitifully low success rate, even for projects that are rated as very good (6) or excellent (7).

FRIPRO evaluation character

FRIPRO evaluation character. Seven is excellent.

Instead, I’m going to raise concerns about gender balance.

The researcher projects have similar success rates for men and women, but have almost twice as many male applicants.

Forty two percent of the applicants for the young research talent projects are women (already signs of the leaky pipeline), who have a success rate less than half as high as that for the men. This difference is statistically significant at the p=0.05 level.

The number of applicants and grants for the mobility stipends for people who have recently defended their PhD (funds two years postdoc research abroad, one year in Norway) are roughly equal and too small to test for any imbalance.

This news comes days after the University of Bergen (UiB) announced the results of its own scheme for excellent young researchers. It is appointing four men. I don’t know the gender balance of the applicants for these positions. I don’t care either: it does not matter. It looks as bad if the university cannot attract female applicants as it does if the university’s procedures are biased against them.

What is going on here?

The low proportion of applications for researcher projects from women probably reflects the low proportion of women in the pool of potential applicants, the result of biases occurring over decades. One might argue that the similar success rate for male and female applicants for researcher projects indicates a lack of bias. A more cynical position is that the female applicants are those that have succeeded against bias over their career because they are exceptional, and this exceptionality balances any bias against women applicants.

The bias against female applicants for both the NFR and UiB young research talent projects is alarming. These postdocs are effectively tenure-track positions: filling them with men condemns us to another generation of male-dominated academic staff, another generation of female students with few role models.

It is not immediately obvious where the bias is coming from. Here are some (overlapping) possibilities (there are certainly more):

  1. Direct, perhaps unconscious, biases by the evaluation panel against women. This is hardly implausible given the evidence of discrimination against women in academic evaluation. If this is a problem and cannot be overcome by training, perhaps NFR should consider anonymising applications, but it is difficult to remove all trace of gendered pronouns in supporting letters.
  2. The language used in the applications is gendered, and the evaluation panel prefers the language used by men. Perhaps men are better at writing the accounts needed to sell the project’s importance and their own excellence. Perhaps they use the passive voice less. It would be interesting to compare the language used (getting hold of the applications would be difficult). It would be scary if (probably small) differences in language could have such a large effect on success. I’m not going to suggest that women should be trained to write more like a man; evaluation panels should be trained to overcome gendered differences in language if they exist (and shouldn’t pay attention to bullshit anyway).
  3. Men get more support and encouragement from senior academics and so are able to write better applications. This, NFR would have no control over, but it could recognise the issue and discount it. If this is a problem, then professors need to provide assistance in a more equitable manner.

NFR has taken some steps to address gender issues, for example,  the main evaluation panel is gender balanced, but judging by this year’s outcome, more needs to be done by NFR and UiB. There probably isn’t a single factor responsible for the bias, so there probably isn’t a magic solution that will solve the problem. Acknowledging that there is a bias is the first small step to eliminating it.

Note, this post is not a case of sour grapes: my research group was awarded two grants under FRIMEDBIO this year. News on these and PhD/postdoc positions will be announced in the New Year.


About richard telford

Ecologist with interests in quantitative methods and palaeoenvironments
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