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Addressing the gender bias in NHMRC Investigator Grants

Welcome to the first instalment of The GrantEd Group's three-part research equity series - all focused on NHMRC Investigator Grants.

Our first blog delves into how gender disparities between NHMRC Investigator Grant recipients has shifted since the scheme was first announced in 2019 and discusses the most recent actions taken by the NHMRC to address the remaining gender bias.

"Despite good progress, gender inequities persist..."

When the outcomes from the 2022 NHMRC Investigator Grant round were announced on 12 October, NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso AO stated that “Despite good progress, gender inequities persist across the health and medical research sector. Disparities in funding of women and men in NHMRC's flagship Investigator Grant scheme have highlighted the barriers that many women face as they seek to advance their research careers”.

Some may ask ‘but, hasn’t NHMRC’s overall funded rates for women and men lead investigators been close to equal for the past 5 years?’ While that may be correct, equal rates of funding is not the same as equality in funding. Different numbers of applications from women vs men will mean that while the rates in each gender may be similar, the numbers of funded researchers between the genders are not. In fact, between 2019 and 2021, men received about 35% more grants and 67% more total funding (about $95 million extra per year) than women.

Working towards the goal of gender equity until it is achieved

NHMRC hasn’t accepted the gender differences ‘sitting down’. Instead, their actions are indicative of their stated commitment to ensure that all researchers have equal opportunity to undertake health and medical research regardless of their gender. Anne Kelso stated “We will work towards this goal until it is achieved. NHMRC is actively considering further initiatives it can take to advance gender equity in its grant schemes”.

Equity, equality: What's the difference?

Equity is a process founded in fairness, whilst equality refers to a fair and just outcome. If we consider Anne Kelso’s statement above, ‘equal opportunity’ for men and women to undertake research will come from NHMRC’s efforts to ensure grant schemes are ‘equitably attainable’ across the genders. Equity is necessary to achieve equality in outcomes.

It’s important to keep in mind though that equal treatment doesn’t achieve equality, but equity in treatment will. Equal treatment suggests uniformity, whereby support is distributed equally among everyone. In contrast, equity in treatment suggests that support is distributed depending upon need.

Here’s a different way to understand equity and equality

Imagine standing at a fence and looking over the top of it. Your friend, who is a little shorter than you, stands next you. They can only see over the fence if they stand on the very tip of their toes. Next to them is your other friend – the shortest of all three. They cannot see over the fence, even if they, too, stand up on their toes.

Along comes a helpful person with three boxes of equal height – one for each of you. You don’t need the box to see over the fence, but you step on it anyway – there’s a better view that greets you. Your shorter friend stands on their box, and they can now see easily over the fence. Your shortest friend stands on their box, but they still can’t see over the fence. The key word here is ‘equal’. There was equal support given to each, but it didn’t benefit you all. This is inequity in outcomes.

Now, imagine that the boxes were of varying heights. You, as the tallest, took the smallest box, you gave the mid-height box to your friend standing directly next to you, and the tallest box was given to your shortest friend. As you each stepped onto your box the differences in your capacity to see over the fence no longer mattered. That the boxes were distributed based on need introduced equity in outcomes.

Image used under licence from Pixabay (ID 1343663478)

The role of structural priority funding to address gender disparities

Specific to Investigator Grants, NHMRC have identified women-led research as an area of need. As a result, they have intervened annually to address gender inequities in grant funding: one strategy of which was structural priority funding that has increasingly boosted the number of women recipients from 2019 onwards.

We may agree with NHMRC that, without their targeted priority funding, gender disparities would be worse.

Emerging Leadership (EL) levels:

In 2021 NHMRC had reached their gender equity targets for EL1 applicants when 48 grants were awarded to women and 44 to men (from 324 and 227 applications, respectively). As a result, it was deemed that structural priority funding was not needed for the 2022 round at the EL1 level, and equitable outcomes were sustained with 47 grants awarded to women (from 241 applications, 19.5%) and 30 to men (from 194 applications, 15.5%).

For EL2, gender equity targets were close to being reached the year prior, so in 2022 NHMRC allocated only a small amount of structural priority funding. The 2022 outcomes showed that 11.6% (n=21 from 181 applications) and 11.4% (n=19 from 167 applications) of funded grants were led by women and men, respectively (11.6% vs 11.4%).

This is an admirable achievement for NHMRC. But what about at the L levels?

Leadership (L) levels:

At the L level a different story can be seen. Gender differences remained in 2021 despite structural priority funding. This was particularly marked at the L3 level where 13 grants were allocated to women researchers and 38 to men; the funding amount was $34.4M compared to $100.3M.

The main factor underlying that disparity was the predominance of male applicants in 2021 – 120 vs 32 to be precise.

For this reason, after the 2021 results were announced, the NHMRC announced they would increase the structural priority funding from approximately 8% to 20% of the L budget to reduce the gender gap in the number of grants and total funding at the L level.

At the L1 and L2 levels, this strategy appears to have removed the gender bias, if not swayed it more towards women researchers – an outcome that is also not equitable. However, the obvious outlier appears at the L level, where a much higher number of funded applications were led by men compared to women researchers (26 vs 15), with the total funding allocated being $37.8M for women and $70M for men.

Again, this disparity appears to be related to the higher number of applications from men compared to women at L3 (113 vs 36).

The outlier has not gone unnoticed. Aligned with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the NHMRC has announced a new initiative for 2023, where it aims to fund an equal number of grants at each of the

L levels for women and men.

In addition, they have acted on the systematic disadvantage experienced by non-binary researchers, and Anne Kelso states they will “…explicitly include them in this and other measures to foster gender equity in NHMRC funding.

An Investigator Grant can make all the difference to a researcher's career. This is one of the reasons that gender equity in this scheme is so important if we are to build a diverse research sector.”

Since the Investigator Grant scheme opened in 2019, 35 applications from non-binary researchers have been submitted and two awarded: both at the EL1 level (one each in 2019 and 2022).

The attrition of women from the research workforce

Yet, there is another concern that NHMRC has noted. In 2022 there was a decrease in the proportion of applications from women at most EL and L levels compared with the 2021 round; 54.4% of EL1 applicants were women (compared to 58.8% in 2021) and 24.2% of L3 applicants were women (compared to 21.1% in 2021).

That relatively few women apply at the senior levels of the scheme reflects the many barriers that lead to their greater likelihood of attrition from the research workforce compared to men.

Our next blog: achieving equity in research funding across career levels

Our next blog in The GrantEd Group’s three-part equity series will delve into the actions taken by NHMRC over the last 2-3 years to reduce the skew in 2019 and 2020 of Leadership applications to L1 and Emerging Leadership applications to EL1. We will discuss the influence of the Statement of Expectations on reducing the likelihood of applicants in 2021 and 2022 applying at a lower level than expected based on their research experience.


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