Are you a woman in research and sometimes feel that the cards are stacked against you?
As a women-built and women-driven start-up helping researchers with research funding, we are passionate about empowering women, especially women in science. To celebrate International Women´s Day on March 8, we take a closer look at gender disparity in research careers and propose some workable solutions through innovative funding schemes that address gender imbalance and inequity.
The gender gap in research affecting women´s research careers
March 8 is The International Women´s Day: a day for celebrating and honouring all women for their unique contribution to society as individuals, activists, mothers, and partners. March 8 is also a day for celebrating women´s achievements and the progress that we have made when it comes to gender equality.
Despite the progress on women´s rights and status in society, gender inequality and the gender career gap remain facts throughout the world. While much has been done, even more needs to be done. To provide a better picture of the status of women in society, let´s take a look at some hard numbers.
Bias at work for women, especially for STEM professionals
When it comes to experiencing gender bias at work, some 50% of women with careers in STEM have experienced discrimination at work because of their gender, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. The biases faced by women are experienced at all stages of the scientific career, including success in scholarship and grant applications, publishing their research in scientific journals, and getting that promotion to leadership roles and even more so for senior leadership positions .
The “leaky pipeline” of women in STEM
The “leaky pipeline” has been used to describe the phenomenon of the proportion of women becoming smaller with education and career progression. Indeed, the data from UNESCO clearly demonstrates a leaky pipeline. According to UNESCO, more than 50% of graduates of bachelor´s and master´s degrees are women. This number dwindles to around 40% when looking at PhD graduates, and declines even further to less than 30% when we look at independent, established researchers .
Women are less likely to be mentored by men as graduate students or postdocs – clearly a problem when you realize that some 70% of principal investigators / lab leaders are males. Women students and fellows are also half as likely to receive “excellent” recommendation letters and 20% less likely to become independent investigators leading their own research groups. Male researchers also receive more start-up capital – male principal investigators receive on average 500,000 USD more than their female counterparts. Women apply for fewer grants, fewer apply for renewals, and less likely to have their renewal applications funded than males .
Clearly the numbers speak for themselves – women at all career stages face unfair biases that often have little to do with their academic ability and research quality. As exemplified by a survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), employers rate identical applicant profiles higher, when they believe the applicant to be a man, compared to the same profiles with female names .
Facilitating women´s careers and promoting equity through research funding opportunities
Biases are probably not something that we can change overnight. What we can and we do believe in, is to continuously raise awareness of social injustices and to promote possible solutions that may address each part of the leaky pipeline, one drop at a time. When it comes to addressing the leaky pipeline of the academic research career, many funders around the world have devised strategies to address this challenge.
PhD and postdoctoral fellowships for women
In the earlier stages of the leaky pipeline, where fewer women take up research careers, several funders have dedicated PhD and postdoctoral fellowships for women researchers, including:
- The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD): as a UNESCO organization and part of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), OWSD supports women researchers in developing countries. It provides annual PhD fellowships for women in developing countries to pursue their PhD in science and technology in the global south, with applications closing in April.
- The American Association of University Women (AAUW) supports women students and researchers, mostly in the USA with funding for pursuing degrees to advance their careers, PhD, postdoctoral fellowships and professional degrees. The Association also has a category of funding for non-US women to pursue their PhD or postdoc in the USA, with additional grants to continue the support for women in these programs when they return to their home countries. Applications are due in November and December every year.
- Zonta International, offers PhD scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships specifically for women worldwide, including the Amelia Earhart Fellowship for women PhD students in aerospace engineering, as well as scholarships for women in business and technology undergraduate and master´s degrees.
Research funding to support flexible working hours, work-life balance and reduce financial pressure
In most cultures women are the primary caregivers, and in order to promote work-life-balance for women, some funders have devised schemes to provide support specifically for women with family responsibilities. For example, the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard-Foundation together with the Bayer Foundation provide funds aimed at reducing the workload of household chores and childcare, so that female students and postdoctoral researchers with children who are working in experimental natural sciences or medicine in Germany have more time for their research. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) provides similar childcare support funding for students and postdocs with children in Switzerland. Other funders, such as the Swedish Research Council and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), provide family support supplements that come with their fellowship funding. To further support work-life balance among female researchers, fellowships such as the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from The Royal Society, supports new independent researchers who require flexible working hours; applications for this fellowship close in November annually.
Financial pressure can seriously dampen enthusiasm for research. To alleviate financial stress, funders as the Funds for Women Graduates (FfWG) in the UK provide funding for living expenses, and also for any unforeseen emergencies.
Funding for networking and teamwork
Success is more likely when we work together and are well networked. Research funding that support teams of women working together include The TWAS – Elsevier Foundation Project Grants for Gender Equity and Climate Action, which is a research grant supporting teams of women researchers in developing countries and addressing challenges associated with climate change. For networking, learned societies such as the European Women in Mathematics (EWM) provide travel funds for their members to attend conferences and events.
Recognizing women´s achievements
Women are grossly underrepresented as recipients of prestigious science awards . One way of addressing the imbalance is through achievement awards that are specifically for women researchers, such as the FEBS | EMBO Women in Science Award for life scientists, the EFIS/EJI Ita Askonas Award for immunologists, the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award for physicists, the ACS Women Chemists Committee Rising Star Award for chemists, and the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Program, which recognizes early career women researchers in STEM worldwide.
In a similar vein, we can also actively recognize the accomplishments of individuals, both women and men, who have contributed to advancing women´s careers. Funders that recognize mentorship support for women include the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which provides an award for encouraging women into careers in the chemical sciences. Similarly, The Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Awards is funded by Conquer Cancer in recognition of extraordinary women leaders in oncology who have been role models and excelled as mentors to women colleagues as clinicians, educators, and researchers in oncology.
More than funding: mentorship and coaching programs
As with support in the start-up world, some funders have also recognized that funding alone is not enough, and more holistic and comprehensive programs that involve career development, networking and mentorship are needed. The Bayer Foundation, together with the Falling Walls Foundation, support the Female Science Talents, a program that provides 1-year intensive coaching for female researchers who are in the final year of their PhD or postdocs, in all disciplines worldwide. Applications for this program closes mid-November annually.
In conclusion, we live in a more equal society than our mothers and grandmothers, but we are far from living in an egalitarian world, where everyone can pursue their dreams and career goals without bias. It takes concrete action from all, including individuals, peers, colleagues, mentors, funders, institutions, and more, to effect change. We would like to commend the funders that we have mentioned here and many more, who make an effort to address gender disparity. We must also encourage every funder and every research institution, who do not already have women-specific opportunities, to consider setting funds aside dedicated to women students, educators, researchers and innovators.
To help bring about more awareness to research funding opportunities for women, we created a list of funding opportunities for women that will be continuously updated as we expand our research funding database.
 How female scientists can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature, 2018.
 Women in higher education: has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities. UNESCO, 2021. ISBN: 978-980-7175-55-5.
 Women in Science Receive Less Grant Money Than Their Male Peers. Smithsonian Magazine, 2019.
 In STEM Fields, Many Employers Hire “John” over “Jennifer”. AAUW, 2015.
 Gender in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Issues, Causes, Solutions. J. Neuroscience, 2019.