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Gender Equity When It Suits

Organisations should apply the principle evenhandedly.

· 6 min read
Gender Equity When It Suits

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is the major source of funding for health and medical research. In a previous article for Quillette, I have described how the current CEO of the organization, Anne Kelso, has pursued a policy of gender equity in the allocation of research grants, with the aim of increasing the number of successful female applicants through the use of quotas. The gender equity policy has focused largely on the prestigious Investigator Grant scheme, which provides five years of generous funding to very productive and impactful researchers and allows them to use the funds flexibly to pursue important new research directions. Investigator Grants are available for researchers at various career stages, but the concern over gender equity has been with the most senior levels of the scheme (Leadership Levels 2 and 3). The graph below shows the situation for applications in 2022. More males applied for grants and, consequently, received more grants; however, the percentage success rates were significantly higher for females (41.7 percent vs 23.0 percent for Leadership Level 3, and 26.6 percent vs 12.6 percent for Leadership Level 2). For 2023, NHMRC has decided to award equal numbers of grants to females and males, regardless of the number of applicants in each group, which is likely to further increase the female success rate.

I am personally against the gender equity policy, believing that funding should be awarded on merit and national research priorities. Any policy that applies gender quotas means that some female applicants are awarded funding in place of males with better-quality applications. However, if the principle of gender equity is to be accepted, then I think it needs to be applied consistently. In this regard, NHMRC fails badly. It applies the gender equity principle when this will favor females but ignores it when it would favor males. I illustrate this below with several examples.

My first example concerns the more junior levels of people-support funding. The graph below shows the gender breakdown in applications to NHMRC for postgraduate scholarships and the two levels of postdoctoral fellowships (Emerging Leadership 1 and 2). For these funding schemes, there are more female applicants, and, consequently, more females receive awards. NHMRC has never proposed equalizing the outcomes here, even though these are the research leaders of the future who will dominate the more senior levels in decades to come.

My second example concerns the staffing of NHMRC itself. From a Freedom of Information request, I learned that in October 2022, NHMRC employed 234 staff, 72 percent of whom were female. The next graph shows the staff numbers broken down by seniority (from lowest [APS 3–6] to highest [CEO & SES]). At every level, the number of females exceeds males. Of the six people at the top of the organization, only two are male. Personally, I think this is appropriate if more females have applied and the applicants are selected on merit, but it is inconsistent for an organization that promotes gender equity in the funding of researchers to not apply the same quota-based approach when selecting its own staff.

My third example concerns funding for research into women’s health and men’s health. The graph below shows the amount of funding provided by NHMRC for research on these topics in recent years. Funding for women’s health research (which is additional to funding on maternal health) has been consistently many times higher than funding for men’s health research. This is despite the fact that the life expectancy at birth of Australian males is 4.1 years less than that of females. While life expectancy in Australia has greatly increased for both men and women since the late 19th century, it is notable that the male–female disparity has not improved. However, despite this persisting gender difference in health, NHMRC has made no attempt to redress the inequity in the allocation of funding.

My final example concerns an online survey of researchers carried out by NHMRC to inform its new gender equity policy on the senior Investigator Grants. As someone who has done quite a lot of population survey research, I can say that the methodology of this survey was abysmal. This was an opt-in survey with no attempt to get a representative sample, and the questions were loaded to give a predetermined outcome. Respondents were presented with various options for promoting more grants for female applicants, but none covered the need to prioritize scientific quality. As one of the people who participated in the survey, I was reminded of the famous Monty Python sketch in which customers in a café ask the staff what is on the menu and are given a long list of dishes all of which contain Spam. For the customer who didn’t like Spam, this was no choice at all.

Science by Quota
Australia’s unnecessary new NHMRC policy will lead to a decline in scientific quality.

Not surprisingly, females were more likely to participate in a survey that aimed to give them more grants. They comprised over two-thirds of the sample. In an NHMRC publication on the results of the survey, no attempt was made to allow for potential biases, including the underrepresentation of males. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents overall favored giving women equal grants and equal total funding even if there were more male applicants. However, if the principle of gender equity were to have been applied, the male respondents should have been given equal weight to the females even if they were in the minority. I obtained the data from this survey under Freedom of Information and reanalyzed the data separately by gender. The graph below shows the ratings on agreement with an option to award equal numbers of grants to female and male applications regardless of applicant numbers. When divided this way, the females largely agreed with this policy, but the males largely disagreed. The cynical conclusion would be that people will tend to vote self-interestedly in a direction that gives them greater chances of reward. Nevertheless, if a gender equity approach were to be applied fairly, it would give equal consideration to both perspectives rather than allow the male minority to be swamped.

I believe that, through these four examples, I have shown that NHMRC does not have a consistent approach to gender equity. It selectively applies the principle when it suits the aims of people in power to give better outcomes for females. Unless the organization applies the principle evenhandedly in both directions, it is really supporting gender hypocrisy rather than gender equity.

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