117 — Female grant applicants are equally successful when peer reviewers assess the science, but not when they assess the scientist

Witteman et al (10.1101/232868)

Read on 15 December 2017
#gender-bias  #peer-review  #sex-factors  #stereotypes  #academia 

This paper opens with a full page of (rightfully) damning prior research on sexism’s pervasive impact on medicine and healthcare: Women are required to outperform their male counterparts for the same amount of recognition. Female physicians, known to have better patient outcomes, are less likely to receive referrals and are less likely to be addressed by the title of “Doctor.” Women, recent surveys noticed, even receive fewer grants than men.

To address this last point, Witteman et al looked to the Canadian Institute of Health Resources (CIHR), which in 2014 switched from investigator-initiated research programs and implemented instead what is conveniently a perfect substrate for gender-bias research in healthcare and medical academia: CIHR now provides two peer-review programs, one of which asks the reviewers to focus on the grant content, and the other which asks that the reviewers focus on the investigator more than the content of the grant. It would be hard to design a better experiment if one tried.

Of the twenty four thousand applications submitted from just over seven thousand investigators over the course of five years, something obvious became… well… obvious: women were awarded fewer grants than men.

The difference was dramatic. When asked to focus on grant content, men were 0.9% more likely to receive funding. When asked to focus on the grant recipient, however, men were 4.0% more likely to receive funding. (These numbers are normalized for age and experience levels.)

This research mirrored work that showed a similar pattern in the NIH R01 program. Surprising no one, sexism in academia transcends country borders.

Because of its design, the review policies adopted by CIHR enable interrogation of other demographic biases as well: Though the data used for this study were not published, I imagine similar studies could look at other minority or under-represented groups and — equally unsurprisingly, find biases there as well.