Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. From only 8% in Ethiopia to 52% in Argentina to 26% in France, 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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Multiple studies of medical researchers have revealed sex disparities throughout their career trajectories. A 2011 study, for example, assessed the midcareer outcomes of a highly select 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 women were not significantly less likely to receive promotions, sex appeared to influence many of these measures of success. They constructed multiple variable 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
For this cross-sectional study, the investigators examined participants on chartered and special-emphasis NIH study sections from May 15–July 15, 2019. Their analysis included 367 study sections with 8,817 participants. The researchers extracted data about study section reviewers and scientific review officers, and institutes, centers or offices. They determined individuals’ sex through name-based internet searches for pictures and pronouns.
The investigators found study sections had more men than women reviewers (61.1% vs. 38.9%). Additionally, study sections chaired by women were slightly less likely to have women as reviewers; whereas, study sections within an institute with a woman chair were slightly more likely to have women as reviewers.
The authors concluded their paper by stating that it’s critical the NIH make intentional efforts to increase sex representation in study sections. For example, they suggest one possible way to reduce disparities maybe to have study sections created through committees or applications rather than individual recruiters.
Lara C. Pullen, PhD, is a medical writer based in the Chicago area.
- Just 30% of the world’s researchers are women. What’s the situation in your country? UNESCO. (n.d.) Accessed March 18, 2021.
- Jagsi R, DeCastro R, KA Griffith, et al. Similarities and differences in the career trajectories of male and female career development award recipients. Acad Med. 2011 Nov;86(11):1415–1421.
- Sege R, Nykiel-Bub L, Selk S. Sex differences in institutional support for junior biomedical researchers. JAMA. 2015 Sep 15;314(11):1175–1177.
- Oliveira DFM, Ma Y, Woodruff TK, et al. Comparison of National Institutes of Health grant amounts to first-time male and female principal investigators. JAMA. 2019 Mar 5;321(9):898–900.
- Volerman A, Arora VM, Cursio JF, et al. Representation of women on National Institutes of Health study sections. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Feb 1;4(2):e2037346.