Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. From only 8% in Ethiopia to 26% in France to 52% in Argentina, the imbalance around the world is extensive. What’s more, once they are involved in research, women are often excluded or held to higher standards.1
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Explore This IssueMay 2021
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Multiple U.S. studies of medical researchers have revealed sex disparities throughout their career trajectories. A 2011 study, for example, assessed the midcareer outcomes of a cohort of able and motivated physician-researchers who were career development award recipients.2 The investigators intentionally selected these individuals under the assumption that this population would be unlikely to experience sex-based differences in career trajectory or outcomes.
The study measured success in multiple ways, including the receipt of an R01 award, promotion and self-perception of success. Most of the promising physician-researchers remained in academia and a univariate analysis revealed that although women were not significantly less likely to receive promotions, sex appeared to influence many of these measures of success. They constructed multivariate logistic regression models for success using the following respondent characteristics: sex, race, age, parental status, degree, specialty group, original institution tier, funding institute type and K award type. They found, for example, that women were less likely than men to receive an R01 award. Of note, although the women in this study were less likely to have children than the men, the investigators found women without children were less likely to succeed than men with children.
A 2015 study examined sex differences in institutional support for junior biomedical researchers and found women who were junior faculty received significantly less start-up support from their institutions than men.3 The discrepancy was only significant among basic scientists—as opposed to clinical researchers—and could not be explained by degree, years of experience or institutional characteristics.
In a more recent study, investigators analyzed U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant amounts for new principal investigators from 2006–2007. This study found the size of NIH awards varied by sex, even at top research institutions. The research revealed that approximately half of the NIH grants awarded to first-time principal investigators during that time went to women, but women received a median of $126,615, compared with a median of $165,721 received by men.4
These findings and others like them have led to a call for a systematic study of sex differences in institutional support and the relationship of these differences to career trajectories.
Now, a new study describes differences in sex representation among NIH study sections. Anna Volerman, MD, an internist at the University of Chicago, and colleagues published their analysis of a single grant cycle online on Feb. 15 in JAMA Network Open.5