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To explain lower success rates of female applicants in ERC grants, we collected data about past performance of the applicants, and we interviewed panel members about how selection criteria are practiced in general and specifically for female vs. male applicants. Controlling for several past performance variables, we still do find gender bias – more often in favor of men than of women. The analysis of the interviews provides empirical evidence that current evaluation practices indeed are not at all optimal, leading to gender-biased practices and outcomes.
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Explaining gender bias in ERC grant selection - a first exploration of
the life sciences case‡,&
Peter van den Besselaar*,#, Helene Schiffbaenker**, Ulf Sandström##, Charlie Mom#
* Network Institute, Vrije Universiteit, Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV, Amsterdam (Netherlands)
p.a.a.vanden.besselaar@vu.nl
# Teresa Mom Consultancy bv, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)
charliesannemom@gmail.com
** Joanneum Research, Vienna (Austria)
helene.schiffbaenker@joanneum.at
## KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm (Sweden)
forskningspolitik@gmail.com
Abstract
To explain lower success rates of female applicants in ERC (life sciences) starting grants, we
collected data about past performance of the applicants, and we interviewed panel members
about how selection criteria are practiced in general and specifically for female vs. male
applicants. The analysis of the interviews provides empirical evidence that current evaluation
practices indeed lead to gender-biased practices and outcomes. The statistical analysis shows
after controlling for several past performance variables – the prevalence of gender bias,
more often in favor of men than of women.
Keywords: Gender bias; peer review; panel review; research grants; ERC; European research
Council; funding.
Introduction
There is a longstanding discussion on whether gender bias influences grant selection
processes, and the literature shows contradicting results [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. However,
there are three main problems with most research: (i) Most studies explain in fact only
differences between success rates of men and women. However, these success rates are only
meaningful when taking possible quality differences of male and female researchers into
account. If these exist [10, 11], gendered differences in success rate could partly or fully an
effect of those quality differences and not of gender bias. To solve this problem, we have
collected data to measure various dimensions of past performance, which are included in the
analysis. (ii) Most studies depend on information only about the successful applicants, but not
on the rejected – as the latter data are generally accessible for investigators. However, in this
study we do have the data about successful and rejected applications. (iii) Bias emerges from
the decision-making process, and this is often done at the level of review panels. In contrast,
most studies focus on a higher level of aggregation, such as the funding instrument, or at the
This work was supported by the ERC (grant 610706: GendERC project), but the funder had no influence on the
design, analysis, or interpretation of the results. The work was also supported by the EC (grant 2654319: RISIS
project).
& Version V8, September 15, 2018
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level of the discipline. We include here an initial analysis at panel level. We do detect gender
bias, in contrast to recent reviews [6, 8, 9].
We investigate the 2014 ERC Starting Grant scheme, and have access to the relevant data
about the 3,030 applicants (about 95 %) that gave informed consent. We selected this case, as
it is the most prestigious grant that exist in Europe for early career researchers (up to seven
years after the PhD), and it is expected to strongly contribute to career opportunities of those
getting the grant [12].
Starting point of the study is that overall female applicants have lower success rates
(applicants/grantees) than men, most obviously in the life sciences (LS) domain. Figure 1
shows the success rates in step 1 and step 2 of the evaluation process in the nine LS panels of
the StG 2014. The panel level enables to locate gender differences more accurately and
potential improvements can be implemented more effectively. In this case, women have a 6 %
lower success rate in step 1 and a 2 % lower success rate in step 2, which makes an overall
difference of 3 %. Figure 1 illustrates that gender differences success rates vary considerably
between panels. In panel LS8 (Evolutionary, population & environmental biology) women do
much better than men, but in panel LS6 (Immunity and infection) it is the opposite. Also,
differences exist between step 1 and 2 in the procedure, indicating the large influence of the
interview with the applicant, and/or a ‘gender correction’ at least in a few panels (LS1, LS3,
LS4). Due to space limitations, this cannot be discussed here.
Figure 1: Success rate of female panel members, StG 2014, LS panels
As Table 1 shows, domain and field differences exist. Overall the success rate of women is
higher than the success rate for men in physics and engineering (PE), possibly as part of
policies to increase female participation within PE. But within PE the differences are large:
women do much better in ‘fundamental constituents of matter’, but much worse in
‘mathematical foundations’. Although in the social sciences and humanities the overall
success rates are equal, between the SH fields, differences are huge: Within ‘environment,
space and population’ (SH3: sociology, anthropology, education, communication) women do
twice as well as men, and within ‘markets, individuals and institutions’ (SH1: economics,
organization and management) it is the other way around. It would be interesting to find out
why these differences occur. Is this research field specific, for example is gender stereotyping
stronger in fields where ‘excellence’ plays a stronger role in the discourse such as philosophy,
mathematics, economics [13], or is this an effect of group dynamics – so more related to
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personal and panel characteristics [11, 14, 15]? Studying these patterns over time may answer
these questions. If the pattern is stable over time, one may conclude that the field
characteristics are most important, if not it may be mainly panel characteristics.
Table 1. Difference between female success rate male success rate
Domain
Overall
Panel with highest ratio
Panel with lowest ratio
LS*
- 27 %
Evolutionary, population & environm. biol.
+ 109 %
- 70 %
PE**
+ 11 %
Fundamental constituents of matter
+ 94 %
- 70 %
SH***
9 %
Environment, space and population
+ 108 %
- 81 %
All
- 6 %#
* Life sciences; ** Physics & Engineering; *** Social Sciences & Humanities. Panel names from 2014.
# Read as: the success rate of women is 6% lower than the success rate of men (all applicants)
We used a series of interviews to investigate the grant selection process and the possibility of
bias entering into it. The panel processes are only weakly formalized, as are the criteria
deployed by the panelists. The council has two principles implemented: (i) the only criterion
that should count is excellence of the project and the investigator; (ii) panels consist of
excellent researchers in their respective fields and should therefore decide among themselves
what excellent applications are. But what is ‘independence’ and how can a panel member or a
reviewer see this? And what is ‘ability to do groundbreaking research’? Is that having
published in Nature, having published a very highly cited paper, or something else? The
interviews show that this in fact results in quite uncertainty and differences. For example,
reviewers doubt about criteria deployed and express the need for clearer and operational
criteria for ‘excellence’. As a panelist tells:
They give you very general guidelines like the scientific quality, the quality of the
researcher, the originality of the proposal, and so on, typical of all projects. In those
projects that are so related to your field of expertise you don’t even need it because
you appreciate them immediately. The problem comes when the projects are far from
your field of expertise, then you have to be very objective in your criteria, so I have
prepared a list of things I should not be forgetting.
This uncertainty and the well-known group dynamics that occurs in panels [11, 14] open the
possibilities for bias entering in the evaluation and selection, which is strongly reinforced by
the high time pressure the panels are confronted with. But, if bias is possible, does it also
occur? To provisionally answer this question we use the following statistical analysis.
Approach, data & methods
Given this, we aim to predict the applicants scores and application success, using a set of
independent variables related to performance (productivity, impact, previous grants, quality of
the collaboration network) and to the person (age, nationality, research field, and of course
gender). As decision-making on grants is done in panels, the effect of the panel is considered
too – through an informal multi-level approach.
The following data were collected, and we add what variables where extracted. As the data
had many formats, quite some technical work needed to be done to extract and integrate the
required data (using the SMS platform - www.sms.risis.eu):
- Age, gender, date of PhD, nationality, field of research: from an administrative
file of the ERC.
- Earlier and current other grants: manually extracted from the CVs.
- Collaboration network: semi-automatic extraction of organizations from the CVs
- Quality of the network: semi-automatic linking of organization names with the
data in the Leiden Ranking; manual search for comparable scores of those
organizations not in the Leiden Ranking.
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- Host institution: from an administrative file of the ERC. For the quality of the host
institution we use the extended 2015 Leiden Ranking scores.
- Productivity, impact: Downloaded from the Web of Science with a manual
disambiguation. The we calculated a series of bibliometric variables, such as the
number of publications, the number of fractional publications, the number of
citations, the number of citations with a three years window, the share of top cited
papers (1%, 5%, 10%, 25% and 50%), the number of top 10% highly cited papers
(so the size dependent variant), the average number of coauthors, and the average
number of international coauthors [22].
- Organizational proximity (cronyism): From the applicants’ data and the panelists’
data we extracted the links between applicants and panel members in terms of
belonging to the same organization [9].1
- Panel review scores of the applications: from an administrative file of the ERC.
- Decision: from an administrative file of the ERC
We currently have a stratified dataset of about 1742 applicants, evenly distributed over the 5
scores given by the panels: A-granted, A-not-granted, B-step2, B-step1, C. We plan to collect
the bibliometric data for the remaining 1288 in the future, so the results here are to some
extent preliminary. The unique nature of our data is that we can combine (advanced)
bibliometric indicators with a large set of other variables. These data enable several
interesting analyses. For example, one may analyze whether organizational proximity
(cronyism) [16], or cognitive proximity [17, 18] have an effect on grant success. One may
also study whether language use in review reports shows the nature of the decision-making
process [19, 20], and more specifically whether language use shows gender bias [21].
Analysis
Due to space limits, we restrict the analysis to the Life Sciences. Firstly, we deploy ordinal
regression for the LS applicants in order to estimate the effect of gender on the decision after
controlling for several quality (past performance) variables, the quality of the network and,
and for organizational proximity. Secondly, we move to the second level, and compare the
panels. We do a similar regression but on the level of the individual panels that can be
compared.
Results: Life sciences
We used the bibliometric indicators mentioned above, the variables on the quality of the
network and the host institution, and the number of grants the applicant has already acquired.
We also include whether a panel member is at the host institution of the applicant, and gender.
Running an ordinal regression, and after manually stepwise deleting variables that did not
work, eight variables remained in the model, which resulted in a pseudo R-square
(Nagelkerke) of 0.308. Table 2 shows the result.
Factors that help to get a better score are papers in high impact journals, the quality of the
network, measured as the median ranking of the organizations in the network of the applicant,
average number of international coauthors, and the number2 top 10% most cited papers
(fractionally counted). Negative works the average number of coauthors, as that may suggest
a lower level of independence. Finally, we do find effects of sexism and nepotism: women
1 We also started to analyze the role of Cognitive bias but at the moment we only have data for a few panels. We
therefore do not include this variable here [17, 18].
2 This is the size dependent variable, which we feel is more valid than the share of top cited-papers.
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score some 0.35 points lower than male (on a five-points scale), and when the candidate has a
panel with a panel member that is at the proposed host institution, this gives almost a 0.6
point bonus.
Table2: Score by performance, organizational proximity and gender
Estimate
Std. Error
Wald
df
Sig.
95% Confidence Interval
Number highly cited (10%) papers
0.124
0.042
8.72
1
0.003
0.042
0.207
Journal impact (NJCS)
1.133
0.11
105.386
1
0.000
0.917
1.350
Number earlier grants
0.184
0.029
39.324
1
0.000
0.126
0.241
Quality network
0.003
0.001
25.41
1
0.000
0.002
0.004
Average nr co-authors
-0.095
0.031
9.099
1
0.003
-0.156
-0.033
Average nr international co-authors
0.281
0.16
3.087
1
0.079
-0.032
0.595
Nearby panelist
0.584
0.228
6.575
1
0.010
1.031
0.138
Female versus male
-0.349
0.145
5.791
1
0.016
-0.634
-0.065
Ordinal regression; Link function: Logit
Pseudo R-square (Nagelkerke) = 0.308
Bootstrapped: 2000 samples; confidence interval 95%
This means that from a performance perspective, only one variable plays a role (the number
of top cited papers). The other variables that influence the score are reputation based (journal
impact related; ranking related) and network based (number of (international) co-authors).
Also, the number of earlier grants has a positive effect on the score; and these grants partly
can be considered as performance, but at least also partly as reputation-related. Finally we
find two bias factors: after controlling for the performance and reputation variables, sexism
and cronyism still have an effect on the scores the applicants get.3
Results: Life science panels
As grant decision-making tales place at the level of panels, and different social dynamics may
take place in the different panels, one may expect that the levels of bias may be different in
different panels. We therefore repeat the analysis for the 9 individual panels, each
representing one or more specific disciplines within the life sciences. However, as at panel
level the number of granted applicants is low (typically about 11 out of about 100 applicants),
the number of variables that can be included is smaller, and also variables that are significant
at the LS domain level, are that not anymore on panel level. Nevertheless, the variables have
overall the same effect in the panel models as for the domain as a whole. In table 3 we show
the sign of the variables for each of the panel-regressions. We use the same variables as for
life sciences as a whole. Most have the expected effect, but some have not. We will address
that after having collected and cleaned the data for all applicants.
Table 3: Sign of regression coefficients at panel level
LS1
LS2
LS3
LS4
LS5
LS6
LS7
LS8
LS9
Number highly cited (10%) papers
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
Journal impact (NJCS)
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
Number earlier grants
+
+
-
+
+
+
+
+
+
Quality network
+
+
-
+
+
+
+
+
+
Average nr co-authors
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
+
-
Average nr international co-authors
-
+
+
-
+
+
+
+
-
Nearby panelist
-
-
-
-
-
-
+
-
+
Female versus male
+
-
-
-
-
-
-
+
+
3 Results concerning cronyism (or nepotism) confirms the follow-up study concerning the Swedish MRC
reported in [23].
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Interestingly, gender bias in favor of men is in six of the nine panels, covering 78 % of the
female applicants in the life sciences. The other three have bias in favor of women, but have
only 22% of the female applicants. This needs further analysis, but gender bias may be related
to the share of women in a field.
Conclusions and further work
Using data for 80% of the applicants, we have shown that gender bias occurs in the life
sciences, but not in all parts of the field in the same way. In most panels we find bias against
women, but in three panels it is the opposite. However, the first set of panels include almost
80 % of all female LS applicants. We also found that the gender bias and different success
rates are not the same, as in one third of the panels, the sign of gender bias is different from
the sign of the success rates: For example, in panel 9, the success rate of women is higher than
of men, but there is still gender bias in favor of men, after controlling for the performance of
applicants. This means that in fact the positive success rate without gender bias would have
been higher.
This analysis covers only life sciences, but we are also analyzing the other domains: social
sciences and humanities, and physics and engineering. These fields are not only different in
terms of gender success rates, but we also expect differences in gender bias.
Panels play an important role, therefore we will also include characteristics of the panel to the
model. What panel characteristics do lead to gender bias? For example, we found a negative
correlation between the number of female panel members and the female success rate (not
discussed in this paper).
Finally, if one understands the dynamics of gender bias, the next question is how to reduce it.
That is crucial, as the type of grants we study here have strong career implications [15, 16].
References
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