Academic position – a gender issue

2015-06-15 14:48

The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research will soon publish a research review on gender equality in the allocation of research funding. Louise Grip is one of the authors:‘The studies on collegial evaluation show that partiality and discrimination are connected to implicit notions of quality.’

The review analyses previous research on the outcome of applications for research funding. It also looks at qualitative studies of collegial evaluations of the applications.

‘There is a general consensus that collegial evaluation of research applications is the best tool available. But the method requires a reflexive approach and an awareness that different ways of framing the evaluation process facilitate different types of research,’ says Grip, who wrote the research review together with Fredrik Bondestam.

Most of the analysed outcome studies show that women are at a disadvantage, as they tend to receive less research funding than men. Only one study points to a male disadvantage. The authors found it particularly interesting to review the studies (a little over one-third) that concluded that the allocation of research funding is in fact gender neutral.

Women underrepresented among professors

Grip says that the neutral outcome found in many studies can be traced to which variables the researchers used as gender neutral. And this in turn is based on assumptions that can easily be problematised.

‘In 16 of these 21 studies, the initial statistical analysis revealed a difference in outcome between women and men. But when controlling for factors like academic position, the gender differences disappeared. So, in a way, the system for research funding is indeed gender equal – what’s really going on here is that there are too few female professors.’

Previous research has at the same time shown that the academic system is anything but gender neutral. A person’s position in the academic system – from lecturers to professors – is largely determined by gender, something many of the outcome studies acknowledge at a general level. Despite this observation, gender is not used as an analytic category in order to also understand academic position as gendered.

‘What we mean is that academic position can’t be considered a neutral variable explaining a gender-biased outcome. Instead we need to ask ourselves: Can a system for research funding be considered gender equal if it supports, rather than counteracts, the gender-biased structures we know are permeating the academic world?’

No established measure of quality

The qualitative studies included in the research review deal mostly with collegial evaluation, meaning the processes used in the assessment of scientific and scholarly quality. Collegial evaluation is the most generally accepted method to decide which research proposals should be granted funding. While the quantitative studies take the concept of quality as something given in their exploration of gender equality in research funding, the qualitative studies show that no established measure of scientific and scholarly quality exists.

‘Reading these studies, it becomes clear that a great number of structural conditions influence which type of research is granted funding,’ says Grip. ‘The composition of evaluation panels is of particular interest, since it has been shown that the understanding of what constitutes high quality varies across assessors. These differences in understanding can often be linked to the assessors’ theoretical or disciplinary orientation.’

One example from the studies is that assessors can reason in different ways regarding the competence of women and men.

‘Men are for example more commonly defined as ”brilliant scientists”, while women are more likely to be ”good scientists”. The Swedish Research Council’s observation reports have also pointed to differences of this type. It has for example been reported that women’s autonomy in strong research groups has been questioned more than men’s.’

The research review will be published by Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research after the summer. Preliminary results were presented at a seminar in Stockholm 23 April.

Author Jimmy Sand
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