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.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

RIP Sir David MacKay

Many people have been paying tribute to David MacKay, who died on Thursday, and I would like to add my own voice. He was an extraordinary man who contributed so much to physics and wider societal issues during his tragically short life. Although I never worked directly with him, nor even interacted with him much during the many years we worked in the same department (Cavendish Laboratory) in Cambridge, nevertheless somehow his character pervaded the world around him and made us all more aware of the importance of finding ways to communicate beyond our own communities.

David was appointed a lecturer at the Cavendish in 1995 having been in Cambridge for a while by then. I must have been involved with his appointment because I have a clear memory of the then head of department telling me how he was astonished by how many people, external to the department, had been telling him that we really must appoint David because he was so exceptional. At that point his main work was in computational studies for the analysis and transmission of information. But his applications were wide-ranging and touched on people working in a variety of different departments across Cambridge. We did indeed appoint him and he was quickly promoted, becoming a professor in 2003. He stood out always by his exceptional teaching (making Bayesian statistics – I think the title of the course was formally Inference – into one of the most popular option courses for our undergraduates was, I always felt, no mean feat.

He did many things on the side. I would highlight the development of some software he called ‘Dasher’, which enabled severely disabled people write text on a computer using their eyes alone. I saw him give a lecture demonstration once – and it was the kind of thing one never forgets. Added to which, when I chaired my department’s REF panel, it was one of the Impact Case studies we submitted. It was characteristic of the man that he absolutely refused to patent anything he did. The software he wrote was open source (and free), he was passionately determined about this, and it meant it was available for anyone to modify if they saw a need. I cannot now remember the quantitative data I must have had regarding the usage when this was being written up for the REF (and since I write this in an airport I cannot dig around to find it even I had retained such information). That wasn’t really the point in his eyes. The programme existed. For certain people it might have a transformative effect on their lives and that was sufficient.

Beyond the reasons he outlined in his own book, I don’t know what prompted him to start analysing energy production and consumption. But anyone who has read Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, completed in 2008, will know what a totally original book it was. The book could be purchased through the usual channels, but it was (and is) also available to download freely, again entirely consistent with his ethos. This book reflected his determination to use simple physics ideas to perform order of magnitude calculations for many of the critical numbers we need if we are really to get to grips with our energy predicament. I saw him get a group of third year physicists to work out how much energy passengers waiting at Cambridge railway station could generate by pacing up and down while waiting for their trains. Maybe not a practical solution to our energy needs, but a striking illustration of the challenges we face without covering the whole of the United Kingdom’s land mass with solar farms. Looking at every type of renewable energy source in turn, in his book he guesstimated how much energy realistically we could hope to obtain. factoring in what humans are likely to be able to tolerate in terms of living conditions, land use etc. It was eye-opening yet also accessible. If you haven’t already read it I would urge you to do so!

It is no surprise that he was able to catch the imagination of politicians with his simple and easily comprehensible analyses. Nor was it in some ways a surprise that he was lured to work as Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2009-14 (and so in two different complexions of Government). He even modified his style of dress to make him more persuasive. He clearly felt his accustomed garb of shorts and sandals (worn regardless of the weather) wouldn’t go down too well in Westminster and was seen to don a suit and tie in the interests of political persuasion. He still took his foldaway bike everywhere – one of the last times I talked to him was at Cambridge station where he stood, with his typical big grin, with his folding bike in his hands.

When he left DECC he took up the Regius Professorship in Engineering (still in Cambridge). It was a great loss to my department, but his loss to the entire community now stomach cancer has snatched him away is far, far greater. He was a visionary, with a young family and so much to live for. His fight with cancer was movingly described on his own blog. His memory will live on with all of us whose lives he touched, by his writing or in person. What a cruel blow. RIP Sir David MacKay (1967-2014). My thoughts are with your family.


Posted in Academia, energy production | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

What have I got to Lose?

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ sang Janis Joplin, and working out what – if anything – there is to lose in general is frequently a good strategy. This was brought home to me recently in discussing a young researcher’s plans. Having attended a confidence-building workshop she had returned to her office and decided to chase up on a speculative application for a postdoc she had made previously and about which she had heard nothing. She wasn’t quite sure there was a connection between the workshop and her decision but she suspected there might have been! And, as she said to me, what did she have to lose by checking whether the professor had any interest in taking her on. The upshot was, the timing was right and she will now be heading off to the US to join a new group.

‘What had I got to lose?’ was also the phrase that went through my head many years ago when I made the switch – that in essence made my career – from working on metals to polymers. It felt like a radical thing to do, but given that I was going nowhere, was bored with the field of research I had been in for the last 5 years, I couldn’t see a downside in switching to something new for which I held a postdoc offer. I couldn’t have foreseen how it would turn my life around, but I did believe it couldn’t make things worse.

So, if faced with a fork in the road or a decision you’re inclined to take but think might be risky, it’s worth asking yourself what in reality you are putting on the line. If it’s no worse than private embarrassment or a slightly bruised ego, then you might like to calculate that really that isn’t much to suffer compared with the potential gain – perhaps as much as a new job as in the example of the young researcher I mention above. Even if it is less significant or lasting, perhaps just the experience of making a poster presentation at a conference or joining a committee, if it feels daunting it is still worth trying to do this calculation. Not just to think of what embarrassment might ensue if you mess up, but what gains to your career trajectory might be won if you do an OK job, let alone an outstanding one.

We’ve all turned down opportunities we later regret. In my case one outstanding case in point occurred when I was about 16 and turned down an opportunity to go water-skiing when on holiday in Austria. Being a bit of a coward and not a good swimmer I declined. I was never offered another chance and there is a small part of me that still minds. But I can also think of a much more recent (albeit still more than 10 years ago) and work-related example. A new group was looking for a Chair. I was sure I could do the job but waited for someone to propose me rather than offer my services in public in case they were declined. This is a classic scenario. One which women seem particularly inclined to subject themselves to. In fact what happened was someone else put themselves forward and they were accepted. The upshot of this was that the group never got going at all in that manifestation because the person concerned never lifted a finger to do anything to get it off the ground.

Since everyone likes to know the end of stories, I can confirm that, from my point of view, this tale has a happy ending. Subsequently a different bunch of people, but also including myself, got together to consider once again doing something on this particular topic. This time it was agreed we should all go away and think about how to take the idea forward. I nobbled someone as I left the room to express my own interest in acting as chair and he duly passed this on. I ended up not being discomfited by putting myself publicly forward but achieving the end I wanted: two or more years after that first attempt we duly got things going and I took on the role of Chair. That taught me how dangerous reticence can be. I hadn’t at all worked out the cost of doing nothing, or asked myself what I personally might lose (I’m ignoring any impact on the wider community) if I didn’t speak up. It also highlights that sometimes you can achieve your goals indirectly, through the medium of another person, again as a way of minimising risk and personal exposure.

I hope this illustrates that many of us can be risk-averse at least some of the time, so ‘calculating the odds’ is a strategy well worth pursuing. Undoubtedly there are times when ‘no’ is the only sensible answer. These are usually the times when you are already overloaded. But saying no because you fear being shown up or rejected is all too often the wrong thing to do. When it comes to that moment of embarrassment, someone watching will probably have forgotten about it all within minutes, even if you personally feel uncomfortable about it for months afterwards. As for rejection, there are many situations when no one else may even know you’ve been rejected (if it was an action by email or private conversation, for instance) so the loss to your standing cannot be large. In the case of the researcher I mentioned at the start, her follow-up email could have been ignored – what would have been the fall out of that? Zilch, to anyone concerned.

So, if feeling full of trepidation, try a little calculation. I’m not suggesting you go the whole Bayesian-hog but I do think it is worth thinking whether the outcome really is so bad come what may or whether in fact there is in essence nothing to lose, particularly if your current situation means you cannot be in a worse place than you are now.

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Heroines We Still Need

I have not been able to think much about blogging recently due to a variety of factors culminating in the wedding last weekend of my daughter. Not that I had much to do with the organisation of the wedding but families and family business, as one of my recent posts spelled out, should be (and are) central to academics and scientists just as much to workers in any other sphere. So, my brain has been elsewhere and not contemplating blogposts. Nevertheless, over the Easter break I did have time to do some reading and I came upon two interesting books to read – one for my Kindle, one in hard copy. It was only after I was well stuck into both I realised they were in fact by the same author: Mark Bostridge. And both books were about women who broke the mould in their own ways, but who had had to fight hard to achieve this, to overcome parental disapproval or mystification.

One should probably best be known as a statistician, although that is not how she is perceived or remembered in the public eye, the other had no claim to a scientific bent. The former studied the works of the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet and applied his ideas to the study of deaths in the army. The story of deaths from Prussian horse kicks, studied by Ladislaus Bortkiewicz and written up in his 1898 book The Law of Small Numbers validating the Poisson distribution is quite well known. Less well known is how Florence Nightingale applied statistics to demonstrate that military hospitals had many flaws and that deaths there were far commoner than elsewhere and not simply attributable to wounds sustained in battle. So, although the myth has it that Nightingale was ‘the lady with the lamp’, that was not really the most important part of her contribution. The Bostridge book (Florence Nightingale: the Woman and her Legend) makes all this very plain.

Indeed reading the book it wasn’t clear to me that Nightingale was in fact a good nurse at all, not the ministering angel of legend more a sharp administrator with the scientist’s determination to use evidence to influence decision-making. Cleanliness, good food and – almost above all, at least in her eyes – good ventilation were key to the transformation Nightingale was able to effect through her powerful coterie of political friends. Ventilation seemed of the utmost importance to her because she clung (at least through much of her life) to the miasmatic idea of infection.

Nightingale was well on in her 30’s before she managed to overcome her parents’ opposition to her doing anything other beyond being a docile, upper middle class lady who was expected to be content with social rounds and a little light visiting of ‘the poor man at his gate’ by an appropriately remote Lady Bountiful, as in the words of that Victorian hymn beloved of my primary school. Reading the descriptions of her early adult life, the misery of an intelligent woman being condemned to a life of pointless indolence, it is remarkable how much she was able to achieve once she kicked over the traces. It is hardly surprising middle class women in Victorian England were not able to accomplish much given the obstacles put in their way: they received little education or subsequent opportunity to use whatever intellect, great or small, they possessed. (As I wrote a while back, Mary Somerville – who knew and encouraged Nightingale herself – was to a large extent able to achieve as much as she did by disguising the hard work behind the social niceties of dinner parties and visiting.)

Vera Brittain was born more than 50 years later, by which time school education for girls was the norm, but doing much beyond that was still unusual. Her book, a Testament of Youth, apparently (according to Bostridge’s Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth) gave a misleading picture of just how hard she had to battle parental opposition to going up to Oxford. Nevertheless it was still not common even in families such as hers, where the boys were naturally expected to go to either Oxford or Cambridge, for girls to attend university. I read Testament of Youth many years ago, probably not long after it was reissued after nearly a 50 year gap by Virago in 1978. It was a book that had tremendous impact when it was first released in 1933, a book that put the woman’s view of the first world war in front of the public to counter the better known war literature of Siegfried Sassoon or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I remember reading it on a train and the man across the table from me looking at it and saying ‘just wait till you get to page XXX, that’s really heartbreaking’. And he was absolutely right. I guess at that time it was so popular it wasn’t such an odd thing for a stranger to say.

In many ways reading both books simultaneously was helpful, because it helped to illustrate how progress has been made – both between their own two lifespans, but also the century since then. Women may still be kicking against the traces, but they aren’t the same ones our predecessors fought against. However, I obviously should have read Bostridge’s co-authored full biography of Brittain rather than this recent, shorter one which focusses rather too much for my taste on the recent film production rather than on her life. Nightingale’s biography is exhaustive whereas the Brittain text I read seems just to be a resume of the longer book updated with some recent information and ancedotes about the production of the 2014 film of Testament of Youth.

We owe both women much, although not necessarily quite along the lines of popular opinion. We should not forget that Nightingale was far more than a lamp-carrier and that self-taught statistics formed a core part of her activity; Vera Brittain was ultimately an ardent pacifist and internationalist, who played her part in giving women – including her own daughter Shirley Williams – a voice. Time passes but we continue to need such heroes (or heroines if you prefer) who are prepared to fight to get their voices heard and to effect change.


Posted in biography, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

What Works: A Review

My review of What Works Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet can be found at Nature. This is a book that  is intended to be a guide to institutional action. I was somewhat underwhelmed, as my review makes plain. If you want a more positive take, you may also be interested in fellow Cantabrigian Victoria Bateman’s review in the Times Higher Education.

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