Female scientists receive significantly less federal funding than their male counterparts, even at top research institutions, according to a new Northwestern University study.
Past studies have shown that women receive less money than men from their own universities to launch research projects. But the new study, by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and the Kellogg School of Management, is the first to show that women also get less money when they apply for government grants.
The gap in funding is considerable. According to the study, female scientists leading a research project for the first time receive about $41,000 less than male scientists in the same position.
The finding is based on an analysis of grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health, the leading U.S. medical research agency.
“With less federal funding, women can’t recruit the same number of grad students to work on their research or buy the same amount of equipment as their male counterparts,” said Teresa Woodruff, director of Northwestern’s Women’s Health Research Institute and a co-author of the study, in a statement. “A funding disadvantage in the formative years of a woman scientist’s career can be especially handicapping because research shows that it is likely to snowball over time.”
For the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers analyzed the backgrounds of 53,000 scientists – 57 percent men and 43 percent women – who received funding from NIH from 2006 to 2017.
Researchers found that the men and women had “statistically indistinguishable records” prior to receiving their first grants from the agency; for example, they had published the same average number of articles and received the same average number of citations.
“This means women are performing at a level on par with men, despite the fiscal disparity,” said Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement.
The funding gap was even more drastic for scientists at Big Ten universities. Female scientists at Big Ten schools received an average grant amount of about $66,000, compared to just more than $148,000 for their male counterparts.
“If you don’t have the right kind of grant from NIH, you are less likely to be promoted,” said Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and a co-author of the study, in a statement. “The prestigiousness of a grant award are the things that make or break someone’s career.”
The funding inequities hurt not only female researchers but also the field of science as a whole, Uzzi said.
“Women in science don’t only add to discovery by bringing in the brain power from the other half of the human race, but also the culture of science,” he said in a statement. “So much of science today is done in teams, and women on teams promote different points of view, increasing our comprehension of problems whether in medicine, business organizations or education institutions.”