Is Australia’s largest medical research funding body doing enough to retain women in STEMM?

Is Australia’s largest medical research funding body doing enough to retain women in STEMM?

"Men were disproportionately awarded a staggering 23% more grants than women, corresponding to an extra $95 million in funding."

Australia needs a diverse and equitable research landscape to tackle our current and future global health challenges. But recent funding outcomes from the Australian Government’s largest medical research funding body demonstrate there is sustained gender bias in funding allocations, which is contributing to the loss of women from careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

Below, Professor Louise Purton and Dr Jessica Borger have crunched the numbers to explain the continued gender gap in research funding, and how it’s contributing to further gender gaps in STEMM.

Professor Purton is Head, Stem Cell Regulation Unit at St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research. Dr Borger is a Lecturer and Graduate Course Coordinator, Central Clinical School, Monash University.

A researcher’s career success depends on key indicators including publication of their research, conference presentations, and the successful award of grants.

Government investment in scientific research grants has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, equating to success rates of just 10-15%.

Australia’s largest funding body, the National Health Medical Research Council (NHMRC), performed a major overhaul to its funding schemes 3 years ago to improve equity in participation and funding.

So have they done enough?

The newly created NHMRC Investigator grants, now the largest funding scheme in Australia, is one of the key sources of salary support for Australian researchers.

But unfortunately, the outcomes of the inaugural round in 2019 saw low success rates, funding heavily skewed towards senior and well-established levels, and a worsening gender bias.

The recently released third round of results has shown that although an equivalent number of grant applications were received from female and male researchers, men were disproportionately awarded a staggering 23% more grants, corresponding to an extra $95 million in funding (See Figure 1 below). 

It comes as women are already poorly represented in the STEMM workforce, with less than 30% of researchers worldwide being women.

In academia, women make up approximately half of early-career researchers (ECRs), consisting of junior investigators with a PhD or equivalent in STEMM, but the ‘scissor graph’ demographic shows that women continue to be excluded from fully participating in science. 

The critical intersection of a women researcher’s career occurs when transitioning to independently establish their laboratory. A failure to retain women researchers in academia, such that they only represent one fifth of senior professors, is attributed to numerous engendered factors including reduced career opportunities, barriers to promotion, and disparity in the distribution of domestic unpaid workloads (64% compared to 36% men). 

Strikingly, this year’s Investigator Grant outcomes reflect a similar scissor graph demographic in the funding of women researchers (See Figure 2 below). Although ECR women researchers were more successful in the number awarded and the amount funded than men, success rates plummeted at a staggering rate with seniority.

At the most senior academic level of funding, only 21% were women, with an additional $66 million of funding allocated to support the careers of senior male researchers.

Is funding moving towards gender equity?

Over the first 3 years of the Investigator grants scheme, men have been awarded at least 20% more funding than women, equating to approximately $300 million in the first 3 years of the scheme (See Figure 3 below), demonstrating sustained gender bias in the disproportionate allocation of funds.

Promisingly, at the early career stages of research, there has been equitable distribution of funding over 3 years (See Figure 3). Yet for these successful ECRs, the staggering loss of senior women awardees, resulting in an overwhelming gendered loss of funding, is disconcerting for women striving for a long-term research career in academia.  

At the junior laboratory head (L1) level, funding for basic (discovery) researchers was awarded to only 12 women compared to 30 men in the first three years of this new scheme. On average, these women received $500,000 less per person than the men despite being at the same level of seniority (See Figure 4).  One recipient stated the “missing $500,000 would have enabled her to pay the salary of an ECR and increase the discoveries made in her research”. 

Disconcertingly, with over three times the number of men funded than women at the most senior (L3) level across all of the research disciplines, the figures demonstrate that government funding bodies are not doing enough to stem the flow of women from academia. As a result, the “scissor graph” will not change. 

Government funding reforms are required to retain women in STEMM

The NHMRC and other funding bodies need to actively work to achieve equal funding quotas and amounts across gender and career stage. Government funding is urgently needed to retain senior level women scientists to close the gap and maintain a diverse next generation of leaders and mentors for future biomedical researchers. 

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Figure 1: In 2021 equivalent number of applicants for the Investigator grant scheme were received by the NHMRC, but males were disproportionately awarded 23% more grants and $95M in funding.

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Figure 2. In 2021 although women were more successful in being awarded funding at the early career level (EL1), success rates staggeringly reduce after the junior laboratory head level (L1) with increasing seniority. At the most senior academic level of funding (L3), only 21% are women, resulting in an additional $66M going to male researchers.

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Figure 3. Since the implementation of the Investigator scheme, men have been consistently awarded more than 20% of the grants equating to a total $300M more than women in only 3 years. Equity in the early-career stage of research has been maintained over the last 3 years, but a staggering loss of women success at the senior academic levels demonstrates current government funding bodies are not doing enough to stem the flow of women from academia.

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Figure 4. At the critical intersection where researchers independently establish their laboratories, women are awarded less grants and on average $500K less per grant then men.

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