According to researchers at Goteborg University - who had to go to court to get access to the confidential data from which they drew their conclusions - a woman researcher has to be 2.5 times more productive than a man in order to impress a panel of interviewers equally. Furthermore, nepotism is rife: if an applicant, whether male or female, is known by the interview panel to have worked with a colleague, then that makes them more likely to win funding.
The work, published today in Nature, is the first time that the deliberations of the interview panels who decide on professional advancement for scientists has been objectively studied.
It also casts a cloud over the repeated efforts of schools, universities and government to encourage more women to go into science, since it shows that prejudice is deep-rooted.
The peer review system used in Sweden, like that in the Britain and the US, presently determines who gets funding for work.
"I found the results very surprising," said Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. "The only way I can see it changing, apart from raising awareness, is to conduct peer reviews where the gender is concealed."
One female scientist who has recently completed a PhD at a British university - but wished to remain anonymous - confirmed the findings of the paper. "It's a lottery," she said. "If you're in a group putting forward a grant proposal, then it's crucial who you nominate to present it to the panel ... the trouble is, nobody can think of a better system."
To produce the paper, the Swedish researchers - two women, one a microbiologist and an immunologist, at Goteborg University - had to go to court and apply under Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act for access to the confidential interview scores.
According to the researchers, Christine Wennerds and Agnes Wold, "peer reviewers gave women applicants lower scores than male applicants who displayed lower levels of productivity. In fact, the most productive group of female applicants ... was the only group of women judged to be as competent as men, although only as competent as the least productive group of male applicants."
No obvious explanation exists for the evident bias, though studies going as far back as 1968 have shown that both men and women rate work done by a man more highly than that of a woman if they know the sex of the worker - but not if the gender is obscured.
The researchers also point out a further reason for gloomy prospects for women scientists worldwide: their study only looked at the peer review system in one research council in Sweden - the country recently named by the United Nations as the best in the world for equal opportunities.Reuse content