The missing criteria in Research Funding

disegno palomba

Ten years after the publication of “Minerva’s daughters” the situation of women researchers -not only in Italy but also across Europe- hasn’t changed much. At least that’s what the latest report promoted by the European Commission The Gender Challenge in Research Funding reveals.

“When being a man or a woman should really count, that is exactly when considering the difference is taken as an insult to the neutrality of science” Rossella Palomba says.

The famous socio-demographic and sociologist Rossella Palomba, one of the most outstanding European figures on gender studies, was one of the 16 experts forming the “Gender and Excellence” group set up by the European Commission to provide recommendations on the improvement of transparency in the procedures used in selection committees for the award of grants and in access to research funding in general.

National data on the Research Funding system –mostly from a gender perspective- have been gathered for all the 27 member states plus 6 associated countries (Croatia, Israel, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey).

The focus of the expert group included national grant awarding procedures and accessibility of gendered data on success rates, amounts awarded and peers taking part in the decision-making and evaluation processes. It centred on the funding of academic and basic research, on key public funding organisations in each country, on competitive projects funding and on individual grants.

Even if measures of excellence vary widely across Europe and across disciplines there’s one common trait. Gender is very rarely considered among the criteria.

“In order to prepare this report we had many auditions, among others to the European Research Council’s person responsible of research funds”, Palomba recalls. “Once we saw gender wasn’t among the evaluation criteria we asked why and the answer we’ve got was that what they fund was excellence, not gender”.

Although the expert group has not found a large and systematic gender imbalance in terms of success rates in research funding in the funding systems studied (the under-representation of women among the researchers in the EU-27 being well known), a clear difference in application behaviour was identified. Women are less likely to apply for funding than men and they request smaller amounts of money.

The reasons beyond this imbalance, according to the report, need further research in order to be found out. Still, Palomba has her own ideas on the issue. “I think this thriftiness depends on the fact that women feel they deserve less, while men are much more aware of their own possibilities”.

Common to all the 33 countries is that women are particularly under-represented among academic gatekeepers and leading positions. The report shows that where a legislation on gender quota in committees is working (such as in Norway, Finland and Iceland) women participate much more than where this measure doesn’t exist.

“The auto-exclusion phenomenon is well working”, Palomba points out. “Besides, when competition lacks of transparency, as it happens in science research, where competitors don’t know the criteria chosen by the gatekeepers, women tend to be less determined than men, who feel more resolute, probably also because they know they’ll be judged by equals”.

If percentages on women researchers in Europe haven’t changed much in the last ten years, the perception of gender as an important issue has undoubtedly arose among the majority of the countries. Most of the 33 countries considered in this report have passed an Act on Gender Equality or Equal Opportunities, and all have some kind of gender equality agency within the national government.

“Unfortunately the investment on equal opportunities hasn’t tried to achieve any real goal”, Palomba underlines. “It’s a surface kind of investment, like if they were telling us: emancipate but don’t expect anything from us”.

The expert group recommendations go from monitoring gender data, publishing the results and increasing funding application from women researchers to improving gender balance among gate keepers and generally improving transparency in research funding.

Palomba considers that all the words on equal opportunities have already been said. That’s why she has lately chosen to explore the use of sensorial experiences as a new way of communicating. The three main metaphors to explain women lack of success in science (the crystal ceiling, the sticky floor and the leaky pipeline) turned into installations might help both men and women to understand empirically that “the obstacles women researchers are forced to overcome not only damage them but also global scientific excellence”.

More about Rossella Palomba www.ingenere.it

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