Study: Female scientists get less federal funding, less lab equipment, fewer assistants

Today’s female scientists face formidable odds to secure federal funding that even comes close to what their equally-capable male colleagues receive.

Men and women have always competed against each other in science. Take this true-life tale:

Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the Marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived an upscale domestic life and had three children, but at age 27, took a serious interest in mathematics and physics. Then she began an affair with the philosopher Voltaire, who also had an interest in science. The illicit couple stoked their love of the subject by installing a laboratory at her husband’s chateau, and the pair each entered an essay into a contest where the subject was the “nature of fire.” (Neither won).


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But at least de Breteuil and Voltaire competed against each other on equal grounds. Today’s female scientists face formidable odds to secure federal funding in an amount that even pretends to come close to what their equally-capable male colleagues receive.

First-time women principal investigators get $41,000 less from the National Institutes of Health than men on average, and even at top research institutions. That was one of the many key findings of gender disparity found in a study released this week published this week in JAMA by researchers at Northwestern University and Kellogg School of Management.

The study analyzed 54,000 grants awarded from 2006-2017 and used key criterion to make sure recipients were at similar points in their careers. Researchers did their best to ensure that the male and female grant recipients they studied were equally qualified by comparing metrics like how many papers the men and women published every year, and how often those papers were cited by other scientists.

While there was grant inequity overall, the study also found that inequity varied by institution.

The disparity was the largest for female principal investigators at Big Ten universities. There, women received an average grant amount of $66,365 versus $148,076 for male principal investigators. At Ivy League schools, the disparity was smaller, with women receiving an average grant amount of $52,190 versus $71,702 for men, and at the top 50 NIH-funded institutions, first-time female awardees received an average grant amount of $93,916 versus $134,919 for men.

This means that female scientists have less money to buy lab equipment, hire grad student researchers, and take on major experiments.

Women did do better than men in one area, an NIH grant called the R01. In this case, they received $16,000 more than men.

National Institutes of Health issued a statement and did not dispute the study’s findings; in fact, they acknowledged the problem. “We have and continue to support efforts to understand the barriers and factors faced by women scientists and to implement an intervention to overcome them, they said in a statement. The NIH has done their own reporting showing the inequity in grant dollars between women and men.

The disparity of grant money can arrest a young woman scientist’s career

“If women are receiving less grant support from the very beginning of their career, they are less likely to succeed,” said Teresa Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University who worked on the study, in a release. “A funding disadvantage in the formative years of a woman scientist’s career can be especially handicapping because research shows that it is likely to snowball over time.”

And of course, money isn’t just money, it buys prestige and access, says another person who worked on the study.

“If you don’t have the right kind of grant from NIH, you are less likely to be promoted,” said co-corresponding author Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. “The prestigiousness of a grant award are the things that make or break someone’s career.”


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.