Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change; Co-Director, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO); Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, McCormick School (Courtesy); Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College (Courtesy)
Women are entering the biomedical sciences in record rates. But what happens to these female doctors and scientists once they’re established in their careers? Do they receive the same support as their male colleagues?
In several key ways, according to new research, they don’t. Women biomedical researchers receive less grant funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and less prize money when they win scientific awards.
That’s the conclusion from two related papers from Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, and Teresa K. Woodruff, a professor at Northwestern’s Fienberg School of Medicine and Northwestern’s associate provost for graduate education.
These findings may not surprise anyone familiar with the overall gender wage gap. But Woodruff says it was important to quantify the disparity.
“Having the data allows us to understand root causes and allows us to understand intervention,” she says.
The sobering results may also help explain why women are still underrepresented in top scientific positions—despite earning PhDs at historically high levels. Women researchers are at a fiscal disadvantage, Woodruff says, “from the very beginning, from the very first grant.” That, in turn, may limit their ability to do the cutting-edge research that would allow them to advance.
Uzzi agrees. The study on prize money, he says, shows another way that women don’t receive “equal recognition for their contributions. That tends to lower motivation, and it tends to have women look to other fields where their contributions will be better acknowledged and better rewarded.”
Measuring the Funding Gender Gap
Grants are the lifeblood of biomedical research, and there is no more important funding source than the NIH, which invests nearly $40 billion each year.
The first grant that scientists receive from the federal agency can help start their career on the right track.
That’s why Woodruff and Uzzi, along with and Yifang Ma, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, and Diego F. M. Oliveira, a scientist at the Army Research Lab, decided to analyze NIH grants to first-time principal investigators (PIs), who are the lead researchers on a project. After analyzing more than 53,000 grants awarded between 2006 and 2017, they found that the median grant size for first-time female PIs was $126,615. That’s a striking 24 percent less than the $165,721 awarded to first-time male PIs.
“What’s important to me is that we continue to develop the strategies that will ensure that tomorrow’s female faculty succeeds more easily than my generation.” —Teresa Woodruff
The team still isn’t sure why the disparity exists. As part of their study they examined potentially confounding factors such as the quantity of papers the researchers had published, citations their papers received, and topics the researchers studied. But there was no systemic difference in those numbers that could explain why first-time female PIs ultimately got smaller grants.
They also analyzed Big Ten and Ivy League universities separately, thinking that institutional prestige or school-specific factors, like grant-application advice or overhead charges, could affect levels of grant funding.
In both instances, they still found a significant gender disparity—a median difference in grants between men and women of $81,711 at Big Ten schools and $19,513 in the Ivy League, with some schools showing no differences and other schools showing differences of up to 66 percent. Restricting the analysis to men and women applying for the same grant, which controlled for grant budget and length, also showed that the discrepancies by gender persisted on average—although like the analysis at the institutional level, the difference in funding amounts was concentrated in certain grants.
Woodruff says the team is trying to get to the bottom of the issue. They are examining the possibility that women are simply asking for less, although she doesn’t think that’s likely. It could be that women aren’t getting the right kind of support from their home institutions—such as lab space—that would make for a more compelling grant application. Unconscious bias at the NIH could also be to blame.
Whatever the reason, it’s essential that it be addressed so that women and men can move through their career on equal footing. Now that scientists know about the funding disparity, “we’re all going to be able to look at our own areas and see what we can come up with as ways to intervene,” Woodruff says.
Prize Money: Even When Women Win, They Lose
Unfortunately, funding disparities don’t go away as women advance in their career. This was the takeaway from Uzzi and Woodruff’s second study, which focused on prize money that biomedical researchers receive for industry awards.
This line of research was sparked by some online book browsing. Uzzi, a fan of mixed martial arts, stumbled across a book called Prize Fights on Amazon, only to discover it was actually about research prizes. “That’s how it happens sometimes in science,” he says.
Prizes are the “coin of the realm in science in terms of recognition for your work,” he says. “Deans and promotion committees all pay attention to the kind of prizes you have, because they really highlight and draw awareness to the quality of your work.”
The team collected data on 628 prizes awarded in the biomedical sciences from 1968 to 2017. These included prominent prizes for research, as well as prizes for professional service, such as teaching and mentoring.
There were some encouraging results: between 2007 and 2017, women won 27 percent of prizes. This is a major improvement from 1968 to 1977, when women received just 5 percent of prizes, and is about what you’d expect, given that 31 percent of papers in the field have at least one female author. But even when women win prizes, they lose. That’s because women do not tend to win the most prestigious and lucrative prizes, the group found. In fact, women made up just 14.6 percent of winners of the top five percent of prizes.
Overall, women won an average of 64.4 cents of the prize money for every dollar men received. If you exclude the most and least lucrative prizes to avoid outliers, the picture looks even bleaker: on average, women receive just 60.2 cents for every dollar men win. That amount, Uzzi says, could make the difference between “a thriving lab or a lab that is always choked for money,” since researchers often funnel prize money into their labs, and the prestige of a prize can attract other funding, as well.
“Deans and promotion committees all pay attention to the kind of prizes you have.” —Brian Uzzi
Interestingly, women are winning more service prizes than men, the analysis found. But these prizes, which are awarded for things such as working on committees or mentoring students, while critical to science, are both less remunerative and less highly regarded than research prizes.
That suggests female scientists are doing more than their fair share of service, and perhaps paying a price for it. “If you’re spending your time doing a lot of service, it drains time away that you would spend on your research,” Uzzi says.
From Research to Intervention
Now that they have named and quantified the scale of the problem, Uzzi and Woodruff hope to identify solutions.
And they aren’t alone. They’ve already heard from a member of the Nobel Prize committee who wanted to know how they could change their nomination process so that more women are in contention. For its part, the NIH issued a statement that said it’s “aware and concerned” about the disparity in funding between men and women researchers.
“What’s important to me is that we continue to develop the strategies that will ensure that tomorrow’s female faculty succeeds more easily than my generation,” Woodruff says. “If we can put into place [a system] that allows my students who are now becoming faculty to actually have a fair shake at the economics that allow us to make the discoveries that are necessary to all of our lives, then we will have done a good thing.”
Ma, Yifang, Teresa Woodruff, and Brian Uzzi. 2019. “Women Who Win Prizes Get Less Money and Prestige." Nature. 565: 287–288.