Study shows that female scientists’ career length compares favorably with that of men – once they get their first grant

Gender Issues

An analysis published this week by L. A. Hechtman et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the career trajectory of women scientists is nearly as long as that of their male counterparts, once they attain a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. The story, reported in Nature News by Holly Else, indicates that women are nearly as successful as men at garnering additional awards from the agency.

According to Judith Greenberg, deputy director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the study, “The narrative about female scientists’ careers needs to be corrected.” She believes that the study results need to be publicized to give PhD students and postdocs “a more realistic understanding of their career prospects.”

The study, “NIH funding longevity by gender,” included 34,770 researchers who applied for NIH funding. The study researchers identified scientists who obtained their first major NIH research grant between 1991 and 2010 and tracked any further major awards that the scientists obtained from NIH until 2015. If the scientists did not receive an award for three consecutive years or more, the investigators considered them “lost from science,” Else said.

Women received less than one-third of grant applications and awards, in spite of the fact that female scientists received about half of the PhDs in the biomedical sciences during that same time frame. This analysis emphasized the “high attrition rates among women in the early stages of their careers,” but demonstrated that once a woman obtained her first NIH grant, the years she would obtain funding during her career were only slightly fewer than those for a male counterpart.

The most recent group of researchers had no discernable differences between the genders when the data were broken into five-year increments. That fact indicates that the situation is improving for women, according to Greenberg. However, the study did indicate that women are less inclined to apply for a grant renewal to continue their projects than men are, and are less inclined to secure funding when they do. For this reason, the study investigators believe that women could profit from getting more support when their initial grant is up for renewal.

Greenberg said, “This is encouraging news for women. They should realize that, sure, it is not easy in academia, but they are not going to have any more difficulty than men once they get their first grant.”

According to the study results, “Overall, given men’s and women’s generally comparable funding longevities, the data contradict the common assumption that women experience accelerated attrition compared with men across all career stages. Women’s likelihood of sustaining NIH funding may be better than commonly perceived. This suggests a need to explore women’s underrepresentation among initial NIH grantees, as well as their lower rates of new and renewal application submissions.”