Research funding gap: her excellence dwarfed by his excellence

Promoting excellence is an explicit goal in European and national research systems. As a result, various excellence-marked initiatives have been established across Europe. However, recent empirical studies and monitoring exercises outlined below show that these excellence initiatives have been more beneficial for male than female researchers. Moreover, this applies to excellence initiatives from organisations or countries with gender equality plans and monitoring practices in place. It even applies in countries with long-term gender equality interventions backed up by political will, such as countries in the Nordic region.

Women continue to be in the minority among researchers, according to UNESCO and EU statistics. Four out of five professors in Europe are men, as are nine out of ten of the heads of European universities. It is alarming news that women researchers are losing out in excellence funding even in the systems formally in favour of gender equality. This means that there still appears to be an unspoken antagonism between gender equality, as defined in funding bodies’ policy aspirations, and the outcomes of their decisions on what they defined as excellence. In short, excellence, at least as it is currently operationalised, is creating new gendered stratifications in our research landscapes

Excellence under scrutiny

Typically, excellence initiatives aim to boost frontier research with major funding. They include national excellence initiatives, introduced, for example, in Germany, national and regional centres of excellence, networks of excellence, distinguished chairs and the equivalent. Among the most high-profile excellence initiatives in Europe is the European Research Council (ERC) endowed with €13.1 billion between 2014 and 2020, and comprising 17 % of the overall Horizon 2020 budget. Its grants are considered among the most prestigious in Europe.

The question remains: how do excellence initiatives influence gender equality developments in research? Nordic countries are of particular interest here since they are frequently rated as the leading region for societal gender equality in international comparisons. They are also knowledge-intensive societies with dynamic research policies, including centres of excellence in research.

No Nordic exception

However, a recent comparison by the Nordic Institute for Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), on gender division of leadership positions of 269 Nordic centres of excellence in 2011 found that only 12% of the centres had a female leader. These are split as follows: in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland women are leaders of 8%, 7%, 13% and 19 % of the centres respectively. These figures are notably less than the proportion of women professors in these countries.

Furthermore, a 2010 Swedish monitoring study on the national excellence programmes during the first decade of the 2000s, entitled “His excellence,” concluded that 87 % of the Swedish excellence funding had been allocated to male researchers. It also found that there was only one woman among those 20 researchers who had received the largest share of the excellence funding. This was the case in the country that has in many respects been a champion of gender equality policies in society and research.

In neighbouring Finland, a national programme called Finland Distinguished Professors (FiDiPro) was launched in 2006 to “enable distinguished researchers, both international and expatriates to work and team up with the ‘best of the best’ in Finnish academic research.

”It has been funded by the national research council, the Academy of Finland, and TEKES, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation. In the first application round in 2006, all 23 FiDiPro professorships went to male researchers. The first evaluation of the programme will be published only later this year. Only four out of the 48 Academy of Finland-funded FiDiPro professors have been awarded to women, thus far, according to senior adviser Hannele Kurki from the Academy of Finland, in Helsinki, an organisation with an advanced gender equality plan since the early 2000s.

EU perspective

The issue of gender and excellence has been raised in several reports initiated by the European Commission since the early 2000s. These include reports entitled: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality, Gender and excellence in the making, The gender challenge in research funding, Enhancing excellence, gender equality and efficiency in research and innovation.

In April 2014, the ERC itself published its own follow-up gender statistics related to grants awarded between 2007 and 2013. The ERC offers grants for different career stages: starting or consolidating grants for senior postdocs and advanced grants for senior established scholars. At both levels, women applicants had lower success rates than men in the period 2007-2013. At the starting grant level men’s success rate was 30%, women’s 25%; for advanced grants 15% for men and 13% for women.

Notably, only in one field was there no gender difference at the starting grant level: the physical and engineering sciences; a very male-dominated research area. Clear differences in success rates in favour of men were found in fields with more women such as life sciences, and human and social sciences. It is alarming that these gender differences in success rates in life sciences and human and social sciences have not decreased but rather widened during the period 2007-2013.

The above figures have been produced by the gender balance working group, which the ERC has set up to monitor gender equality in its activities. In 2010, the ERC has also endorsed a gender equality plan. It has also recently given funding for two gender monitoring studies related to its grantees and funding process. However, how the ERC will respond in practice to the recent rather alarming monitoring results on gender and success rates remains to be seen.

Time for action

Beyond the remit of the ERC, other European funding and national funding need also to be scrutinised. The 2008 EC expert report The gender challenge in research funding, which reviewed public competitive funding in 33 European countries, indicated that many funding bodies in Europe were relatively inactive and indifferent in gender equality issues.

The expert group’s recommendations for funding bodies included establishing supporting structures to monitor gender equality. These include increasing applications from women researchers, improving the gender balance among the gatekeepers of research funding—including panel members, reviewers and committee members— and gender training of those involved in funding evaluation and decision-making. It also involves collecting and publishing gender statistics, conducting in-depth monitoring by discipline and funding instrument, increasing transparency and accountability, using increasingly international evaluators, and avoiding conflicts of interest.

Most funding bodies in Europe still do not engage in such activities. If they do, and if systematic gender differences are revealed as a result of monitoring, the question remains what these organisations would then do to change their policy and practice.

Liisa Husu

Professor of gender studies, and co-director, GEXcel International Collegium for Advanced Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Örebro University, Sweden

Liisa Husu will take part to a session at the ESOF 2014 conference entitled: Women in science: mind the gap!

Featured image credit: Ulla-Carin Ekblom

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