Part II: The Sequelae of Women’s Unequal Burden of Family Care on Science Careers

In my last blog posting, I discussed the large differential that exists between men and women who intend to pursue an academic research career. I examined the data suggesting possible reasons and concluded that the most likely cause was the unequal sharing of the burden of family care where it falls much more heavily on women. In this posting, instead, I want to explore whether women and men who entered the scientific workforce as academics have the same chance of securing funding or whether there is a gender differential also at this level.

2012mtgbabyAn ASCB member and family member at the  2012 ASCB Annual Meeting.
In cell biology as in all the sciences, we cannot afford to let the talent,
ingenuity, and hard-won experience that women bring to modern
research be wasted.
A very informative paper published by NIH scientists analyzes this issue in detail1. The study examines NIH award programs to determine if success rates and grant size indicate differences in NIH funding for female and male scientists. The take home message is that success and funding rates for men and women are not significantly different. This is indeed very good news, overall indicating that there are no significant differences by gender in securing NIH funding.

Let’s unpack this result a little further. If we look at R01 grants alone, the bread and butter for most ASCB scientists, results hold true, with men and women having approximately the same success rate (23%) with no significant statistical difference. At this point, we need to make a distinction between success rate and funding rate. Success rate

is the percentage of reviewed grant applications for competing awards that received funding in a given fiscal year. However, since one investigator can write more than one application, the chances of getting funding by one investigator (funding rate) is determined by the percentage of applicants (person-based) who received competitive funding in a given fiscal year. Now, while the success rate for R01 applicants is not statistically different for men and women, women have a lower funding rate than men. Data show that the funding rate for female scientists hovers around 26% as opposed to 28% for men.

The cause of this lower funding rate for women is most likely that experienced male applicants (after their first R01 renewal) had higher funding and success rates than women. Funding rates for experienced female scientists for all competing R01 applications is at 27%, while at 31% for the male counterparts. We find a slightly lower, but still statistically significant, differential in success rates, 22% for females, versus 24% for men. Men seem to be two to four percentage points more successful than women when we look at all R01 application renewals coming from experienced investigators. What appears to be happening is that men are more likely to apply for renewal than women, hence giving them greater chances of being funded.

The NIH study does not analyze the reason for this phenomenon. However, as I said before, I believe that the burden of family care plays an important role here as well. Today we commonly hear of postdocs and graduate students deciding to postpone having children and forming a family until they have secured themselves faculty jobs, most likely because of the tough job market. So it may be that we are dealing with the same story that we examined in the previous blog post—the unequal sharing of family care. By the time female scientists come up for a first R01 renewal, they may feel less competitive and more enmeshed in family duties, decide to submit fewer grants and lie low, or even to drop out of the academic workforce.

Nor would I exclude the influence of unconscious bias in the grant review process. This illustrates once again the need for training to help reviewers recognize possible implicit and unconscious biases that can influence decision-making.

There may also be another factor. Recent research in Germany found that women scientists are less likely to be singled out for recognition than men2. They are less likely to sit on advisory boards, receive awards, and give talks at scientific conferences. These are all issues very familiar to the ASCB Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee. The German study found that one  reason for lower female participation at conferences is that female invitees are twice as likely to turn down speaking invitations than male (don’t shoot the messenger!). If these results are broadly confirmed, I would go back to the same key point that I raised previously—it is possible that, yet again, the reason for this phenomenon is the dismal unequal burden than women bear in tending the care of the family.

And could this also explain the lower funding rates for female scientists at the R01 renewal stage? Possibly. Visibility in science matters, and if women are unable to present at important scientific meetings, participate in study sections, and sit on advisory committees, it is possible that their visibility and scientific contributions may sadly be overlooked.

This is why WICB is such an important committee in the life of ASCB, breaking ground and ensuring that women in the field of cell biology have the chance to be visible and to succeed. ASCB is recognized among other societies as the longtime campaigner on this front. Let’s keep up our efforts. The need is still there. Watching out for bias and unequal expectations is more important than ever during tough budgetary times, especially when grant paylines fall. In cell biology as in all the sciences, we cannot afford to let the talent, ingenuity, and hard-won experience that women bring to modern research be wasted.

  1. Pohlhaus JR, Jiang H, Wagner RM, Schaffer WT, Pinn VW (2011). Sex differences in application, success, and funding rates for NIH extramural programs. Acad Med. 86(6): 759-67
  2. Schroeder J, Dugdale HL, Radersma R, Hinsch M, Buehler DM, Saul J, Porter L, Liker A, De Cauwer I, Johnson PJ, et al. (2013). Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia. J Evol Biol. [epub]
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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