Female-dominated disciplines have lower evaluated research quality and funding success rates, for men and women

  1. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Canterbury, Christchurch New Zealand
  2. School of Earth and Environment, University of Canterbury, Christchurch New Zealand
  3. Bioprotection Centre of Research Excellence, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, New Zealand

Editors

  • Reviewing Editor
    Peter Rodgers
    eLife, Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • Senior Editor
    Peter Rodgers
    eLife, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

Summary:
The authors used four datasets spanning 30 countries to examine funding success and research quality score for various disciplines. They examined whether funding or research quality score were influenced by majority gender of the discipline and whether these affected men, women, or both within each discipline. They found that disciplines dominated by women have lower funding success and research quality score than disciplines dominated by men. These findings, are surprising because even the men in women-dominated fields experienced lower funding success and research quality score.

Strengths:
- The authors utilized a comprehensive dataset covering 30 countries to explore the influence of the majority gender in academic disciplines on funding success and research quality scores.
- Findings suggest a systemic issue where disciplines with a higher proportion of women have lower evaluations and funding success for all researchers, regardless of gender.
- The manuscript is notable for its large sample size and the diverse international scope, enhancing the generalizability of the results.
- The work accounts for various factors including age, number of research outputs, and bibliometric measures, strengthening the validity of the findings.
- The manuscript raises important questions about unconscious bias in research evaluation and funding decisions, as evidenced by lower scores in women-dominated fields even for researchers that are men.
- The study provides a nuanced view of gender bias, showing that it is not limited to individuals but extends to entire disciplines, impacting the perception and funding and quality or worth of research.
- This work underscores the need to explore motivations behind gender distribution across fields, hinting at deep-rooted societal and institutional barriers.
- The authors have opened a discussion on potential solutions to counter bias, like adjusting funding paylines or anonymizing applications, or other practical solutions.
- While pointing out limitations such as the absence of data from major research-producing countries, the manuscript paves the way for future studies to examine whether its findings are universally applicable.

Weaknesses:
- The study does not provide data on the gender of grant reviewers or stakeholders, which could be critical for understanding potential unconscious bias in funding decisions. These data are likely not available; however, this could be discussed. Are grant reviewers in fields dominated by women more likely to be women?
- There could be more exploration into whether the research quality score is influenced by inherent biases towards disciplines themselves, rather than only being gender bias.
- The manuscript should discuss how non-binary gender identities were addressed in the research. There is an opportunity to understand the impact on this group.
- A significant limitation is absence of data from other major research-producing countries like China and the United States, raising questions about the generalizability of the findings. How comparable are the findings observed to these other countries?
- The motivations and barriers that drive gender distribution in various fields could be expanded on. Are fields striving to reach gender parity through hiring or other mechanisms?
- The authors could consider if the size of funding awards correlates with research scores, potentially overlooking a significant factor in the evaluation of research quality. Presumably there is less data on smaller 'pilot' funds and startup funds for disciplines where these are more common. Would funding success follow the same trend for these types of funds?
- The language used in the manuscript at times may perpetuate bias, particularly when discussing "lower quality disciplines," which could influence the reader's perception of certain fields.
- The manuscript does not clarify how many gender identities were represented in the datasets or how gender identity was determined, potentially conflating gender identity with biological sex.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

This study seeks to investigate one aspect of disparity in academia: how gender balance in a discipline is valued in terms of evaluated research quality score and funding success. This is important in understanding disparities within academia.
This study uses publicly available data to investigate covariation between gender balance in an academic discipline and:
i) Individual research quality scores of New Zealand academics as evaluated by one of 14 broader subject panels.
ii) Funding success in Australia, Canada, Europe, UK.

The study would benefit from further discussion of it limitations, and from the clarification of some technical points (as described in the recommendations for the authors).

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation