Gender equality: on the right track but more work is needed

Has the SNSF disadvantaged women researchers when awarding grants? The 2019 Gender Monitoring Report does not show clear discrimination. But it highlights potential biases.

The SNSF has been dedicated to creating equal opportunities for women in its research funding for many years. Using statistical analysis, we wanted to know where we stand in terms of gender equality. The 2019 Gender Monitoring Report looks at the evaluation process of the project funding scheme, for which the SNSF reserves 50 per cent of its budget. Under the scheme, established researchers can submit grant applications for their projects twice a year, in April and in October. The report analysed over 20,000 funding decisions between 2008 and 2018.

Fewer applications

Overall, women have submitted fewer funding applications than men. The percentage varies depending on the research area. In October 2018, women submitted 41% of the applications in the humanities and social sciences; in mathematics, natural and engineering sciences the percentage of women applicants lies at only 14%.

These results are not surprising. They reflect the number of women researchers in Switzerland who are eligible for the project funding scheme.

Lower success rate at times

What is the success rate of applications submitted to the SNSF? Are there differences between men and women that exceed the expected statistical fluctuation? For some years, this has indeed been the case. However, the differences are smaller when factors such as the research area, age, the applicant's institution and assessments by external reviewers are taken into account. But they do not disappear entirely. They are most pronounced in the research area mathematics, natural and engineering sciences in 2015, and in the life sciences between October 2010 and April 2013.

Reviews written by external experts are of particular interest here. On average, these experts gave women lower marks. In further analyses, the SNSF wants to find out if the external reviews are biased against women. We will also explore how such biases could be reduced.

Funding level has evened out

And what about the women who obtain a grant? Do they receive a similar amount of funding as men? In certain years, women researchers in the research area mathematics, natural and engineering sciences as well as in the life sciences received less money for their projects than the men who had asked for the same amount. The reasons for this have not yet been identified, but the SNSF will continue to investigate them. Interestingly, the gender difference disappeared in the analysis of the last three evaluation rounds in 2017 and 2018.

Sensitising experts

"We are happy that no clear discrimination was discovered in the evaluation procedure of the project funding scheme. And it seems that certain differences have been eliminated during the last few years," says Simona Isler, Gender Equality Representative of the SNSF. "But the report also shows that we need to have a closer look at these issues and that further measures are necessary. For example, it would appear that we need to continue raising awareness among external experts to minimise potential biases in reviews."

Make the most of the talent pool

The SNSF will continue to analyse its evaluation procedures in future Gender Monitoring Reports. Such analyses are important for the successful development of research funding. In addition, the SNSF is promoting gender equality with targeted measures. They include PRIMA grants for outstanding women researchers on the road to a professorship and Flexibility Grants for researchers with child-care duties.

Women must have the same opportunities for financial support as men," says Angelika Kalt, director of the SNSF. "Gender monitoring and targeted measures bring us closer to this goal." She is in no doubt that "women and men need to be equal in research. This is the only way to ensure that Switzerland makes the most of its talent pool."