Simple solution to retain women in research

Guest post by Dr Aoife McLysaght

A large part of science policy concerns funding priorities: how to strategically employ limited resources to ensure the long-term health and productivity of the research sector.

Science and technology aren’t always predictable – things change, the frontiers advance, and there is a great need for any system to be adaptable and responsive.  There is broad agreement that the best way to achieve this is to focus on the people doing the research and ensure that the most talented people are funded and retained.

In this regard, there is a systematic failure worldwide to retain women in academic research. This is a complicated issue, which is related to both subconscious bias and the fact that job interviews and grant funding evaluations often coincide with the time in her life when a woman might have children.

This co-incidence artificially depresses her apparent productivity if you, say, count papers-per-year, or any other simple metric of success. Having a baby means temporarily getting less work done – there’s not only maternity leave but also the fact that you can’t do some experiments while pregnant due to risks from chemical exposure.

There is a simple solution to this which is employed by some of the very best funding agencies, including the prestigious Wellcome Trust and European Research Council. These agencies don’t count productivity per year since Ph.D., but per active year since Ph.D. This very simple correction means that you obtain a truer representation of the woman’s work rate and productivity, and a fairer comparison with her counterparts.

I personally benefited from this when I applied for an ERC grant this time last year. They evaluated me based on what would be expected from six active years post-PhD rather than the nine calendar years that had elapsed. They do this because their aim is to identify and fund applicants that have shown early promise given their career stage.

Evaluation is actually based on more than just number of papers, and includes such subjective entities as quality, impact and originality of the work. This subjectivity leaves plenty of room for bias – unconscious or otherwise – and that is difficult to both recognise and address.

Apart from ensuring a balance on the interview panels, one thing that may help resolve this is just to simply raise awareness of the problem. To that end, the more research agencies and universities that have explicit policies to encourage, support, and retain women, the richer the research community will be.

Dr Aoife McLysaght (@aoifemcl) is associate professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin and is a regular speaker at events including the recent TedxDublin which you can watch below:

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