Why do female scientists receive less funding?

It's more than a simple case of gender bias
  • @jeremyfarrar

Yesterday in Stockholm, eight scientists received their Nobel prizes, for medicine, physics and chemistry. All of them are men. At the same time – and by complete coincidence – this newspaper ran a story 'Women scientists less likely to receive funding', based on a study published in the journal BMJ Open Access. The connection is not too difficult to make.

Gender inequality is an important and complex issue that we and other organisations across the scientific community, and indeed other sectors,  take very seriously. Differences in research funding between men and women is not a new issue, but the situation is a lot more complicated than the newspaper headlines made out.

Reporting the BMJ’s findings as "women scientists less likely to receive funding" merely serves to perpetuate the myth that women will be less successful than men as a given eventuality. In fact, our funding rates for women and men are comparable amongst the applications we receive. The reality is that we receive fewer applications from women, but this is a symptom of a much bigger problem and one that we are seeking to address.

The BMJ reports that the average grant for a female-led study in infectious disease research is more than £50,000 lower than for a study led by a man and that the total funding awarded to male scientists is more than three times the total funding awarded to women. What is lost by reporting the figures in this way is the career stage of the applicants.

We know from surveys of our own researchers and studies on both sides of the Atlantic that women are more likely to leave academia at an earlier career stage than men. This means that a greater proportion of female scientists are at an early stage in the scientific career pathway. Grants awarded to early career scientists are typically of lower financial value than those awarded to senior researchers, which would explain why the average funding awarded to women is lower than men.

It has also been suggested in previous reports that women might be "less ambitious" in their applications and apply for more modest amounts of funding for their research. Although more evidence for this is needed, it's well-documented across sectors that women are less willing to ask for promotion and salary raises.

These are reasons for the funding discrepancy between men and women but not excuses and are not something that we simply accept. At the Wellcome Trust, our mission is to fund "the brightest minds with the best ideas". We believe passionately that breakthroughs in medical research emerge when the most talented researchers – male or female – are given the resources and freedom they need to pursue their goals at all stages of an academic career. Success in this demands diversity – of people, ideas and approaches.

We have commissioned studies of our scientists' career paths, to try and understand the reasons why women are leaving science at an earlier career stage than men. There are myriad reasons, including a paucity of female role models, the need for greater flexibility within work practices, a lack of stability and short term contracts and a culture of long working hours.

There are many outstanding women working in science today, but if we are to encourage more women to follow in their footsteps, we must seek to address the real and perceived barriers to success. That way, we can support talented scientists, both male and female, to pursue fulfilling academic research careers.

Dr Jeremy Farrar is Director of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation