Unravelling Grant Success Rates by Gender

I first realised that the problems I was facing might just, possibly, not be down to my own shortcomings when I read the 1999 MIT report on the Status of Women. For the first time it occurred to me that my failure to be persuasive in committee meetings, or to convince the head of department of the importance of my research area, or to be treated with the respect that seemed to be accorded to other professors and FRSs…..maybe it wasn’t simply because I was incompetent. I was not pleased to work this out. It is easier, perhaps more comfortable, to believe that if you just try harder you might improve your skill base; that it lies in your hands to develop and succeed. To appreciate that the odds are systemically stacked against you is painful because it tells you there is nothing you can apparently do to improve your lot.

However, that is probably too negative a view. I am talking about nearly 20 years ago and at least the inbuilt biases are now laid bare for everyone to observe. Many committees I sit on are more than willing to discuss possible unconscious bias. People appreciate that references can be subtly (or indeed not so subtly) devaluing contributions from women. But if you are dealing, for instance, with an analysis of research grant success rates, how can you tell where any problems reside? As I’ve written before this is an issue the European Research Council constantly faces. Why is it that the Life Sciences domain is apparently less likely to award a grant to a woman than a man, whereas the other two domains are seemingly gender blind with essentially parity when it comes to success rates between the genders? The trouble is, we don’t know the answer.

For any funder it is possible to draw up a list of possible sources of inequity, and then to try to work out the steps that are needed for a remedy. Factors could include any (combination) of the following:

  • Women being less competent (I’m including this for completeness rather than because I accept it!);
  • Women being judged to be less competent;
  • Women receiving less benefit from mentoring;
  • Women underselling their track record;
  • Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write;
  • Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions;
  • Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply;
  • Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities;
  • Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence;
  • Women publishing less.

Others can probably expand this list, which is certainly not meant to sound like victim-blaming. I am simply trying to identify factors that may impact on women and thereby highlight whose task – which won’t necessarily be the funder’s – it might be to resolve it. However, maybe it is time to rewrite this list to make it clear where responsibilities should sit or how we might change the narrative.

Perceived issue

Women being judged to be less competent Unconscious bias training is getting more common and panels are more aware of the issues. Funders’ responsibility
Women receiving less benefit from mentoring


Employer’s responsibility to ensure all who need it receive mentoring and it doesn’t rely on the old boys’ network to deliver.
Women underselling their track record;


Or is this a case of men overselling their track record? Funders can try to standardise how track records are to be presented and employers can provide mentoring, oversight and guidance for how to write this up. Panels should try not to be blinded by fancy words or self-important egos, wherever found.
Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write


Are panels rewarding the bullshit factor? Should panels be trained in hyperbole detection? Should employers provide support for grant writers to ensure applicants neither over- or undersell their ideas?
Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions


Departments should look critically at workload models and ensure fair treatment of all. Bad departmental citizens should not be tolerated, let alone rewarded.
Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply


This needs unconscious bias training at departmental level, particularly but not exclusively of the leadership team. Mentoring also has a role to play.
Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities


This, unfortunately, is a societal issue that we should all speak up about, but cannot be resolved by funder or employer.
Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence


Employers need to think hard about this, an effect probably down to implicit bias and lack of mentoring procedures. We live too much by ‘to him [sic] that hath shall be given’.
Women publishing less Whoever said we should be judging on quantity? Funders should reconsider if they are implicitly doing this. We should make sure criteria of excellence are appropriate and not based on outdated concepts.

For some time I personally thought it was all down to the funders’ panels’ implicit bias. I have come to believe that this is probably only the origin of a small fraction of the problems. Other issues need to be tackled closer to home. However, we need constantly to revisit the barriers that may underlie uneven success rates and work out the how, who and what in order to resolve this issue. Levelling the playing field should be in everyone’s interests; employers should certainly take note of all that they could and should do. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that crude statistics of success rates can only take us so far and the qualitative insight that anecdote and experience feed in must also be taken into account.


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3 Responses to Unravelling Grant Success Rates by Gender

  1. Janet says:

    This list concentrates on the input end of the process – factors that can be controlled at source, more or less. It is good and sensible of course to focus on what the individual and immediate points of contact can change.

    But let me just mention the much more difficult issue of the ‘wider network’, which the individual acquires over time (mentoring/employers can help encourage its development of course). For women, in a male-dominated field, this accumulation will on average go more slowly for the same amount of effort invested. This matters a lot when it comes to being judged in low-odds competitions – which so many are, especially these days. Without a wide well-maintained network, the references a given grant application will attract will not have enough of a ‘wow’ element. The panel can have the most exquisite unconscious bias training in the world, but if the referees don’t get behind the application and provide that 3rd party support – the panel is not going to be able to fill in the gaps and favour minority applicants over the cases pushing all the buttons, unless some kind of quota principle is allowed to operate. This is likely to be a problem later in a woman’s career: younger women, like younger men can be judged more on potential and less on peer evaluation.

  2. Chris says:

    I help academics with grant applications and see a lot of applications coming across my desk from both men and women. I’m not going to make any gender-based analysis of what I have seen here, but briefly mention my anecdotal views on what appears to make a successful grant application with regards to inspiring confidence in competence.

    From what I’ve seen, grants that are more successful, tend to use positive, direct and focussed language to describe what they want to do rather than passive, broader language as this implies uncertainty or lack of clarity. Using words like ‘envisage’ or ‘explore’ etc. sound a bit hazy compared to ‘designed to’ and ‘targeted to’ or using phrases that may suggest the work is incremental such as ‘build on’ (simple common examples, but it pervades the whole writing style). I think this goes a long way to inspiring confidence in the proposal (of course it is FAR from the only thing that matters and there are many other things that successful grants get right as well).

    The problem is that other academic writing styles (at least in science) actively encourage caveating of statements to make sure that they are not seen as too broad or generalised beyond the supporting evidence, but this style doesn’t work in what is effectively a sales pitch within a grant application. It is not overselling or being too bold in that context to write an application on the basis (assumption?) that the research proposed will achieve the outcomes planned. Yes, even though we know with research there will always be an element of uncertainty (and actually that does speak to another bit about inspiring confidence – what do we know about that uncertainty and what is the plan B for this research if plan A doesn’t work?).

    Couching your research plan in caveated language just makes it sound a bit vague and speculative – not the things you want a research committee to be thinking about your proposal when evaluating it. I’m sure this is some part of the issue with success rate differences between genders in environments where women feel undervalued and under-appreciated and suffer more from ‘imposter syndrome’ than their male peers.

    I personally think that academics have pretty good bullshit detectors when it comes to research applications (so pure flimflam is usually swiftly dismissed), but where an applications use positive, focussed language to describe a well planned project with clear supporting evidence of importance, it can go along way – perhaps beating competition from ostensibly better research (I can’t judge) that is described less confidently and with less convincing evidence – possibly because it is much harder and requires more expertise to extract and recognise that the science in the latter applications is better. For most research funders these days, funding decisions seem to be made within the pack of ‘fundable’ research as judged by the reviewers and panel, i.e. which good ideas appear to be ‘the best’ or ‘the most deserving of funds’. Really unworkable, poorly planned, non-excellent or ‘all style no substance’ proposals usually don’t make it into this pack I suspect.

    Of course these are just my own experiences and I’m sure that there are other differing points of view from actual academics out there.

  3. Ursula Martin says:

    Very nice piece Athene – and pulls apart the different issues clearly. I recently ran across a thought-provoking article about how imposter syndrome can turn the burden onto women and away from problems of bias https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/how-the-rhetoric-of-imposter-syndrome-is-used-to-gaslight-women-in-tech

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