Earlier this year, Research Councils UK published data on the ages and sex of people who applied for grants between 2010 and 2013. There was a large discrepancy between the sexes in the success rate for large grants: men, on average, had a 38 per cent chance of success; for women, it was 24 per cent. The trends were more mixed for standard grants, but men almost always had a higher success rate than women.
RCUK also published the gender composition of its peer-review panels, councils, boards and committees. Startlingly, the strategic bodies were, on average, 73 per cent male. The composition of the peer-review panels was a little better (69 per cent male), with some councils, such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, edging closer to even (58 and 52 per cent male, respectively).
Are these two findings linked? Does a male-dominated panel rule disproportionately in favour of men? After all, the ESRC, which has the most even-gendered panels, has bucked the trend, giving women a higher success rate for 2 of the past 3 years. But association is not causation. To say there’s a strong causal link would be to do the research councils and the panelists a disservice. From my time at the AHRC, I know that the council strives to be fair and to use excellence as the primary criterion in deciding on applications.
But excellence is a difficult thing to pin down, and some people on the peer-review panels might believe that it can only be found in certain institutions or in a certain sex. We all have prejudices and preconceptions, however hard we try to bury them or compensate for them. RCUK needs to do more to increase the equality and diversity of its panels to counter this.
But how? Its equality and diversity statement is a bit mealy-mouthed, promising to "discuss equality and diversity issues at institutional visits" and to "reserve the right to introduce more formal accreditation requirements". Not exactly Churchillian rhetoric, is it?
RCUK must be bolder if it is to overcome the discrepancy. Firstly, it must understand the reason. Is it really that research by women is just not as good? Or that women don’t write very good applications? More plausibly, some suggest that the discrepancy is the result of the contrasting career trajectories of men and women. Many women choose to take career breaks for family reasons, whereas men plod on with their research, progressing up the hierarchy and building a strong profile as they do so.
Or is it a similar phenomenon to that evident in the gender gap in citations? A study last year showed that "women are systematically cited less than men". It suggested two reasons for this: firstly, women tend to cite themselves less than men; secondly, men tend to cite men more than they cite women. Are women less willing to blow their own trumpets in applications or when it comes to putting themselves forward for the panels?
The balance of academics across the UK is 55.5 per cent male and 44.5 per cent female. Figures show that the percentages are converging over time.
No-one would want the research councils to impose some form of award quota to reflect this, but they should do everything in their power to encourage a more equal panel membership. This could mean including more staff who are at an early career stage, making meeting dates more flexible (after all, only 39 per cent of full-time academics are women), or actively inviting women to take part.
Sometimes, change needs a little push-start.