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Rubrik: News

Meta-analysis of gender inequality
Discrimination against women in science?

Published: 15.02.2007 06:00
Modified: 15.02.2007 05:56

(per) When women apply for research funds they seem to be less successful than their male counterparts: they are more likely than their colleagues to end up empty-handed. This is shown by a meta-analysis carried out by three ETH Zurich researchers, Lutz Bornmann, Rüdiger Mutz and Hans-Dieter Daniel from the Professorship for Social Psychology and Research on Higher Education, who conducted statistical analysis of 21 studies of the unequal success of women versus men in the appraisal of research applications. The results of the analysis have just been reported in “Nature”. (1) However, the meta-analysis cannot give any information as to the reasons for the differing rates of success. According to Lutz Bornmann: “Since we do not know the reasons for the differences, we cannot say based on the meta-analysis results that there is a tendency to give preference to men or even that there is discrimination.” Nor can he say what the situation looks like at ETH Zurich, at the Swiss National Science Foundation SNF or in Switzerland in general. The results of a study commissioned recently by SNF were not yet available.

Do more men apply for research grants?

Some reasons for the inequality could be that there are disproportionately more men on the committees that assess research applications, or that fewer women apply for research funding as the principal applicant. An extensive literature survey by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) actually shows that women who pursue an academic career are disadvantaged compared to men on the same career path. Female faculty members earn less, are promoted to higher academic positions less frequently. and publish less often than their male colleagues. The meta-analysis by the three ETH Zurich researchers reveals that gender differences are now also detectable in the assessment of research applications.

Regular evaluation increases the balance

It is said that one possible way of excluding potential discrimination in the assessment of research applications is to conceal the applicant’s gender on applications. Bormann reports that this has been successful in the case of expert refereeing for journals. However, whether it will also work for the submission of a research application is unclear. The decision as to whether someone is to benefit from grant funding also depends on an applicant’s record of achievement. Another effective precaution against possible discrimination is continuous professional checking of the selection process and its results. A couple of years ago the Professorship investigated the selection process for student grant applications at the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation (BIF). This revealed that although the selection brought to light the best young talents and there was no difference between the genders at post-doc level, an inequality was detected among the doctoral students. The BIF decided to keep the situation under review. Obviously they succeeded: half of the grants in 2006 were awarded to women. The US National Academy recommends the setting up of funding and support programs for women. The procedure for appointments and promotions should also be revised to exclude discrimination from the outset.

(1 Bornmann, Lutz (2007) Bias cut. Nature Vol. 445, p. 566; 1.2.2007. Meta-analysis at (

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