‘Game-changing’ gender quotas introduced by Australian research agency

‘Game-changing’ gender quotas introduced by Australian research agency
Three women wearing PPE work in a lab.

Last year, female researchers received Aus$95 million less than male researchers in investigator grants from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty

In an attempt to achieve gender equity, Australia’s leading health and medical research funding organization plans to award half of its research grants for its largest funding programme to women and non-binary applicants, starting next year.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced the move last week. It will apply to researchers at the mid-career and senior level applying for the agency’s investigator grants, which fund research and salaries. Grants will also be fixed at Aus$400,000 (US$252,000) each a year for five years. Many countries struggle to achieve gender equity in research funding, and the NHRMC will be one of the first agencies to introduce gender quotas at this scale, say researchers.

“It’s game-changing,” says Anna-Maria Arabia, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. The plan “directly removes a barrier that’s historically led to attrition in the research workforce and has led to the significant under-representation of women at senior levels”, she says.

“It’s a really significant step in the right direction,” says Kylie Walker, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, a Canberra-based organization representing applied scientists and engineers. From 2015 to 2020, the number of women enrolling in undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in Australia increased by 24%, compared with a 9% increase in the number of men enrolling. “We need to obviously work out how to keep them,” says Walker.

Biggest gap

In 2021, 254 investigator grants were awarded, worth Aus$400 million in total. But when two researchers in Melbourne reviewed the data, they found that men had received 23% more of the grants, worth an extra Aus$95 million, than had women. There was an outcry from researchers. This year, the agency conducted its own review of investigator-grant outcomes from the past three years and found that the biggest gap was among the most senior researchers. A subsequent discussion paper and consultations with researchers informed the latest decision.

The NHMRC has been working for a decade to address gender inequity in its grant funding. For example, in 2017, it introduced ‘structural priority funding’, which reserves additional money — around 8% of the overall grant budget — for high-quality ‘near-miss’ research applications led by women. This approach is also used to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers

But this did not address the gender imbalance among the most established researchers. In 2021, only 20% of the applicants in this group were women. Modelling suggested that even raising the priority-funding allocation to 20% of the grant budget for senior researchers did not achieve parity, says Anne Kelso, chief executive of the NHMRC. “The skewing of application numbers from men versus women is so great at the upper end of the scheme that the structural priority funding doesn’t get you there,” she says.

The council will be looking to see whether awarding equal numbers of grants by gender leads to an increase in the number of senior women applying for leadership grants, says Kelso.

Skewed workforce

The gender disparities in grant applicants and recipients among senior researchers reflect disparities in the STEM workforce, says Isabelle Kingsley, a research associate at the office of the Australian government’s Women in STEM Ambassador in Sydney. She hopes the NHMRC’s policy will help women to stay in research and progress in their careers.

For early-career researchers, the NHMRC will continue with existing gender-parity measures, such as structural priority funding. Kelso says there is significantly less gender imbalance among early-career researchers. From 2019 to 2021, more applications for investigator grants at the earliest career stage came from women — who were awarded 137 grants, compared to 123 for men. “We found that we hardly needed to use any structural priority funding for the more junior levels,” she says.

Tony Kenna, president of the Australian Society for Medical Research in Brisbane, welcomes the changes, but hope this won’t be the final step. Other NHMRC grant schemes could benefit from similar reforms, he says, as could funding schemes offered by other agencies, such as the Australian Research Council.