Gender inequalities in research funding call for political intervention
The current system for research funding may be reinforcing the gender-unequal structures in academia. This is the conclusion of a research review presented by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research.
In the review, published in Swedish and titled Fördelning eller förfördelning? Forskningsfinansiering, jämställdhet och genus – en forskningsöversikt, Louise Grip and Fredrik Bondestam have compiled and analysed international research on how inequalities related to gender and other factors are created and challenged in the allocation of research funding.
Most studies on the outcome of such allocation processes show that women tend to receive less funding than men. Only one reviewed study points in the opposite direction. The authors have also looked closer at the studies – about one third – that deemed the allocation of research funding to be gender neutral. According to Louise Grip, the conclusion that the funding outcome is gender neutral is based on assumptions that can be problematised.
‘In most of these studies, the initial statistical analysis has pointed to a gender difference. But when controlling for certain factors, academic rank in particular, the gender differences disappear, leading the researchers to conclude that the studied allocation processes were indeed gender neutral,’ she says.
At the same time, research shows that the academic system is anything but gender neutral. A person’s position in this system – from lecturers to professors – is strongly linked to his or her gender. Many of the quantitative studies address this issue at a general level but will not use gender as an analytical category to understand the academic position as gendered – an approach Louise Grip and Fredrik Bondestam are critical of.
‘You can’t consider academic position a gender-neutral variable able to explain the gender inequalities in research funding. Instead we should ask ourselves: Can a system for research funding be considered gender equal if it reinforces rather than reduces the unequal structures we know exist in academia?’
The view of quality depends on research tradition
The qualitative studies included in the research review concern mainly peer review – meaning the processes through which scholarly quality is evaluated. While the quantitative studies in this field of research look at the shares of women and men who apply for and are granted funding, qualitative studies can provide more information on what goes on in the actual assessment processes.
‘We can conclude that relatively few studies have access to the rooms where the actual decisions are made. There’s definitely a need for better access and more research. But the studies that explore the processes empirically tell us, among other things, that different ways of framing the assessment process enable different types of research,’ says Louise Grip.
Researchers in the field have shown a particular interest in the composition of peer review panels. One reason for this is that studies have shown that the definition of quality often varies among the members of such panels. The differences in this respect can often be attributed to the members’ shifting theoretical perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds.
‘In qualitative studies, the researchers are more apt to question what quality ”is”. It is pointed out in various ways that quality is created in the mind of the reviewer.’
One example from the studies is that reviewers can reason in different ways regarding the competence of women and men.
‘For example, men may be more likely to be defined as ”brilliant scientists”, while women are ”good scientists”. Observation reports from the Swedish Research Council have also pointed to these kinds of differences, where for example women’s independence in strong research teams were questioned more often than men’s,’ says Louise Grip.
Today the efforts to achieve gender equality in research funding often aim to ensure that the shares of women and men who are granted funding correspond to the shares of women and men who apply for grants. This helps ensure equal distribution of research funding. However, this does not automatically imply gender equal allocation. In order to achieve gender equality, the whole allocation process must be freed from gendered perceptions of research and researchers.
‘The inequalities in academia, in terms of gender and other factors, imply entirely different opportunities for researchers to advance their careers. The ambition to achieve a proportional distribution of research grants reinforces rather than challenges these unequal conditions. What we show in the report is that it is time for policymakers to step up and adopt a more critical gender perspective on research funding,’ says Fredrik Bondestam.