Funders get Tough

This post is not, as UK readers might think from the title, a tirade about one of our Research Councils’ shortsightedness.  On the contrary, it is a plaudit for a UK ministry, who are showing admirable steel on behalf of women. As the ASSET 2010 survey results  showed (various analyses, formal and informal, are given here, here and here), women still appear to feel disadvantaged in the STEM arena in higher education. The survey itself cannot prove whether they truly are or aren’t, as it is essentially about perceptions, but plenty of other studies reinforce the message that women are less likely to rise to the top of the career ladder in science, earn the same as men, or sit on as many high level committees – exactly the sort of problems the women identified in the survey. These disadvantages have been talked about repeatedly, but overall the situation has improved only very slowly over the years. Within any given institution there may be good policies developed, but not necessarily fully utilised or implemented. I suspect too often heads of department or their equivalents want to do the right thing, but there are other issues that absorb even more of their attention such as the RAE/REF.  It’s hard to keep a soft, intangible thing like equality and diversity near the top of the agenda when funding issues focus the mind so much more.

Unless….unless the funders themselves focus the minds of everyone on the fact that they care about these matters. And that they care so much, and think it matters so much, that they will start to withhold funding from organisations that haven’t considered their environment, and cleaned up their policies and implementation thoroughly, on this front. For the first time (to my knowledge), a funder has stepped in to do just that.

The Department of Health has been reviewing applications for their so-called BRC’s and BRU’s (Biomedical Research Centres and Units).  These grants are for many millions of pounds and run for 5 years, I believe. This is big money of huge importance to the institutions that apply for them.  However, when it comes to the situation for women in some of these places, the message from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, was stark:

responses varied from excellent to frankly appalling.    I was embarrassed on behalf of our nation to hear some of the responses.

So, she has decided to do something. In the future, when the next round of applications are considered for these multi-million pound enterprises (some of these may be for more than £100M), they

do not expect to short-list  any NHS/University partnership where the academic partner (generally the Medical School\Faculty of Medicine) has not achieved at least  the Silver Award of the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science.

There, that will concentrate the mind! Institutions have the 5 years until the next funding round to get their house in order.  Some may be well on the way, but a quick look at the Athena Swan website does not appear to show any medical schools per se as having even a Bronze award yet, as far as I can see – I hope I haven’t overlooked anywhere. There are some departments named that might form part of a medical school (eg both Cardiff and Queen’s University, Belfast have bronze awards for their Schools of Nursing and Midwifery), but clearly there will need to be a lot of work done.

I, for one, applaud this action. I hope other funders will follow suit (so the post’s title could be regarded as an exhortation; otherwise it is inaccurate since only a single funder so far has got tough). By giving notice of their concerns over this issue, but giving realistic timescales for organisations to sort themselves out, the Department of Health is imposing both a stick and a carrot.  Organisations should realise that they may well need this period of years to get on top of their own local issues. Monitoring statistics, examining trends, working out what isn’t working for their particular workforce and what simple steps would make easy gains all take time.  The Athena Swan Silver award is not something given lightly for a few glib sentences prepared by a hastily convened committee, but needs thought and stamina. Even so, it isn’t asking departments to do impossible things, it just requires buy-in from the very top and some thought and hard work.  It also requires that the whole university has signed up to the Charter and acquired a bronze award. I haven’t checked to see if all the relevant universities are actually Charter members, because if not some organisations will have even more work to do.

I think Sarah Hawkes, who is the Senior Policy Adviser responsible for Athena SWAN is going to be very busy in the months ahead, working with the various Medical Schools to help them understand what it is they have to do. If other funders follow suit, she really will have her hands full.


For information, the 6 Charter Principles, which Athena Swan Charter members are asked to accept and to incorporate into their action plans, are given below. More information and help can be found on the Athena Swan website.

1.      To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2.      To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3.      The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4.      The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5.      The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6.      There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation.



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3 Responses to Funders get Tough

  1. All credit to the Department of Health. You are completely correct. It is not that Heads of Department are opposed to equality. It is just that the benefits are intangible or diffused and hard to capture while the costs, for example, cover for maternity leave, are real and activities directly related to funding tend to take priority.

  2. Fred Habuckle says:

    I think the idea is poor. Applications for research funding should be based purely on merit. I think it would be better to remove any aspect of gender, name, institution and have the application reviewed purely on merit. This will remove any gender bias, nepotism and elitism that are the real cause of poor research outputs.

    • Gender issues influence scientific endeavour at three levels: participation, cultures and research, and there is substantial research evidence of gender bias, please check for views from science leaders and researchers ion We need to train both women and men on the relevance of sex and gender issues in research, in peer review, in funding committees, in journal editorial policies, and in the sociocultural context in which the research is organised. Research evidence shows that the absence of women in the labs makes it more likely that the male is accepted as the norm and that sex/gender bias will persist in science knowledge making. For example, the first voice recognition products did not work for women because the technology was designed and tested in labs populated mainly by men; our knowledge of pain is largely based on research that excluded females, but pain is different for women and men; of the 10 prescription drugs removed from the market by the FDA between 1997 and 2000, eight were more dangerous to women than to men. It is hugely important that (public) money is not spent on producing knowledge that ignores sex/gender differences where they are important, or ignores collective intelligence benefits of gender balanced teams. Surely, we should not allow any more situations such as reported in the journal Pain that “ 79% of animal studies published in Pain over the preceding 10 years included male subjects only, with a mere 8% of studies on females only, and another 4% explicitly designed to test for sex differences (the rest did not specify)”.