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Canada’s health research funding is gender-biased

Dr. Holly Witteman, Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, Université Laval

Dr. Holly Witteman’s research results are probably not surprising to female academics, professionals, or job applicants. Gender bias is real, and it’s preventing female scientists from advancing in their careers.

Dr. Witteman, a researcher at Laval University School of Medicine, recently completed a study on the success rate of female scientists applying for grants from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). Witteman found that female applicants’ success rate in CIHR’s Project Grant Program (12.5%) was virtually the same as men’s (13%). Here, the applicants were evaluated based on their projects: “ideas with the greatest potential” were successful. But in CIHR’s Foundation Grant Program, “researcher leaders” were sought. And this is where the bias shows up: male researchers in the Foundation Grant Program had a 13.9% chance of success, compared to just 9.2% for women.

This is not surprising, since so many people either consciously or subconsciously perceive men to be more competent, confident, and assertive–leadership characteristics that are not as likely to be attributed to women. There is a lot of research on student biases in evaluations of their professors (e.g. lower rankings due to ethnicity, gender). Gender inequality in the tenure review process results in far fewer women receiving tenure than men. No one is free of biases in the review process.

So what can organizations like universities or CIHR do to correct or offset these biases? Professor Jennifer Raymond at Stanford University suggests that a blind application process might level the playing field. Blind reviews are used in academic publishing (the editor knows the author’s identity but reviewers do not) and even double-blind reviews (neither editors or reviewers know the author’s identity). Orchestras introduced blind auditions in the 1950s, using screens to conceal the identity of the musicians; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra even laid down a carpet so that high heels couldn’t be heard. The percentage of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the world increased from 6% in 1950 to 21% in 1993. In the UK, blind recruitment (names are removed from job applications) has resulted in the hiring of more visible minorities in the British civil service. Some Canadian law schools have stripped names from applications. There are lots of precedents that have successfully eliminated bias from review processes.

I have served on the review committee for last year’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Grants and will be serving on their Insight Development Grant committee this year. I would think it would be quite easy for SSHRC to withhold the names of grant applicants, since applications are developed online: a script could be written to produce a file without including the name identifier for reviewers, since it already generates a PDF of the entire application. Both reviewers and the committee chairs could be blind to the applicant’s identity. The SSHRC CV would be challenging though; removing your name from all your 28 publications and grants and replacing it with “Applicant” would be tons of fun!

Why aren’t all national grant councils like CIHR, SSHRC and NSERC required to blind their review processes? Maybe we should start clamouring for this. Think of all the wasted potential: amazing medical research, cutting edge psychological treatments, or urban policy recommendations we’re missing out on because of gender bias!


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