Women and men get research grants at equal rates — if women apply in the first place

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'Women face an uphill battle in biomedical science, on many fronts. There is bias in hiring and in how other scientists view their research. Fewer women are chosen to review scientific papers. Men still outnumber women at the ivory tower’s highest floors, and of course, women in science face harassment based on their gender. But once the top of the hill is in sight — once a female scientist gets a coveted major research grant — the playing field levels out, a new study shows. Women who get major grants stay funded and head their labs just as long as men. The hitch? Women must reach the top of the academic hill and apply for those grants in the first place.

“We’ve known from the data that’s publicly available that women are getting approximately 50 percent or more of the biomedical Ph.D.s, but when the time comes to apply for grants, the number drops precipitously,” says Judith Greenberg, the deputy director of the National Institute of General Medical Science in Bethesda, Md. Less than one-third of first-time applicants for the big grants from the National Institutes of Health are women.

In part, that number reflects the gender disparity in faculty positions in general. To get a big pot of money from the NIH, a scientist needs to have a position at an eligible institution, often a university. That’s not a trivial goal. For example, women received 53 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology in 2015. But in that same year women represented only 44 percent of assistant professors in biology, and only 35 percent of the full professorate.
Overall, they found, women submitted fewer applications per person than men, and tried to renew their successful grants less often. And when they went to renew those grants, they were less successful and got lower scores from grant reviewers than their male counterparts. But when Greenberg and her group equalized the men and women by when they were first funded and what kind of degree the scientists had (M.D./Ph.D. vs Ph.D., for instance), the differences smoothed out. If a woman could get that first big NIH grant, her chances of keeping her lab afloat were equal to a man’s.

“If you asked people out there, the common wisdom is that women aren’t going to survive in the system,” Greenberg says. “What makes this paper interesting is that it contradicts that assumption.” Greenberg and her group reported their findings July 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.'

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