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Despite earning higher praise, women get lower scores on NIH grant renewals, which may contribute to an attrition of mid-career female scientists.

Why it matters:

Although both genders are almost equally represented in the early career stages of academic medicine, women are underrepresented in high-ranking positions. Only 21 percent of full-time professors at American medical schools were women in 2014, according to an Association of American Medical Colleges report. The exact reasons for this attrition are debated, but one possible factor is funding.


This divide isn’t just bad for women who are scientists — it’s bad for women, said Anna Kaatz, a clinical investigator at the University of Wisconsin Madison and lead author of the study.

“People are more likely to study issues relevant to their own health,” she said. “If you don’t have women advancing to the highest positions where they can become leaders and really contribute to policy, we’re going to continue to see health disparities between women and men.”

The nitty gritty:

In this study, researchers analyzed the written feedback and numeric scores grant reviewers gave to about 150 National Institutes of Health grants awarded to scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison between 2010 and 2014. The study used text-mining software to detect praise words, including standout words like “outstanding” and “exceptional,” and ability words, like “skilled.”


The researchers found no gender divide in the reviews given to initial grant applications — in other words, the grant that a scientist would request when they were just starting their own lab or a new research project.

But grant renewals showed a departure. While female scientists were 13 percent more likely to receive standout praise on their renewal applications, their average scores were more than four points behind their male colleagues. Though these grants were all funded (the NIH doesn’t publicize information on unfunded grants) a four-point divide could have ruled out many other women’s grant applications. The study was published in the Journal of Academic Medicine.  

What they’re saying:

The discordance between written feedback and scores suggests subconscious gender bias bleeds into the review process — influencing both male and female reviewers.

“Even though we think we’re being objective, the truth is we grew up in a society where there are gender stereotypes, and they unconsciously impact our assessments of people,” said Anne Wright, a medical anthropologist at the University of Arizona who wasn’t involved in the study. “These findings confirm that it influences us.”

What’s next:

Solutions are, so far, in short supply. Cloaking the applicant’s identity would pose a problem, because part of a review involves judging a scientist’s knowledge, access to resources, and previous successes. It might not be as simple as increased awareness either. One experiment that asked university students to write passages about stereotyped groups found that if the students were told stereotyping was common, they were actually more likely to do it. But Kaatz still thinks facing the numbers head-on is the only way to come up with interventions.

“If you never look at your data because you don’t want to see what it’s going to tell you, you’re really working in the wrong direction,” she said. “Awareness is the first stage in addressing bias.”

But keep in mind:

The NIH keeps the names of rejected grant candidates confidential; therefore, the grants used in this study were all eventually funded, some after multiple attempts. Without being able to examine failed grants, the authors can’t say exactly how many applications may have been affected by bias.

Also, the study just encompassed one university. Kaatz and her colleagues are in the process of conducting a nationally representative, experimental study to corroborate their findings.

The bottom line:

Subconscious gender bias may lead reviewers to hold women to higher standards than men, diminishing their funding opportunities during a critical point in their careers.