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Comment: Danish gender equity programme founders while men benefit

It is about gender quotas and earmarked funding for women in academia. The Danish government’s YDUN programme was a one-off initiative that provided DKK 110m in research funding to female researchers for 2014. Here two professors puts it into a broader perspective

Denmark’s YDUN programme, a one-off government funding earmarked for female researchers, has caused controversy because of its explicit gender criterion, but the amount allocated is only equal to a single year of the excess funding male researchers get from their higher success rates in the funding schemes of the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF in Danish).

Denmark grabbed the gender equity bull by the horns by announcing a special allocation of research funding for 2014 for young women. But it is a dangerous beast to tackle politically. The YDUN programme, named for a Nordic goddess and worth 110 million Danish Kroner (15M€), is run by the DFF and is paid for by a direct commitment in the national budget. Applicants saw a success rate of 3%, with 17 awards of typically 6.5 million Danish Kroner (€870 000) made from 553 applications. The political squall the initiative provoked was surprising in a country renowned internationally for its gender equality, strong childcare provision, and high percentage of women in the labour market. So severe was it that the chair of the DFF, Peter Munk Christiansen, swore that he would never oversee another YDUN initiative, though he takes a staunch pride in its very high competitiveness and its mobilisation of young, talented women. Nonetheless, it seems that the backlash was too severe to be weathered successfully and it looks like YDUN was a singular event.

The YDUN programme was well-timed for the DFF. In a recent review of the council by an international panel that was largely positive, the biggest criticism was the council’s lack of focus on diversity and gender equity. It responded to this by publishing gender-disaggregated statistics for previous years. In the DFF’s own analysis they were considered close. This inspired us to analyse the statistics from the DFF and we found a familiar pattern. The success rates for men and women over the years since the foundation of the DFF, 2005–2013, are, on average, 14% and 11% respectively, calculated by taking the ratio of funding applied for and received.* While these are superficially close, the difference is statistically significant and shows male candidates applying to DFF have approximately 20% greater success. The male advantage persists across the decade and across the five DFF specialist boards, covering natural sciences, technology, medicine, social sciences and humanities. This advantage amounts to an average of 106 million Danish Kroner (14M€) per year since the DFF was founded (see Figure). The irony for Munk Christiansen is that this amounts effectively to the equivalent of an YDUN programme for men every year. The aggregate over the lifetime of the DFF amounts to more than one billion Danish Kroner (140M€). Overall, YDUN, welcome as it was in seeking to widen Denmark’s talent pool, only managed to level the playing field for one year, and only for the DFF.

The DFF has made significant strides in improving the gender ratio on their boards, with a significant fraction, typically around 30%, of the members now being outstanding, senior female scholars. However, the DFF is responsible for only about 40% of the funding under the umbrella of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy. Thus, the pattern of male advantage observed even for the DFF is likely to exist in the rest of government research and innovation funding. There was no YDUN for the other research funding bodies.

In practice, however, the DFF playing field was still not levelled by YDUN even for a single year. This is because the level of competition for the YDUN money was so much higher than for the average DFF grant. The excess funding received by men on average per year was close to the total YDUN allocation, but for this excess funding there were eight times fewer applications, effectively 66 men on average applying for that amount of money, while there were 527 women applying for YDUN.

The better funding prospects enjoyed by men could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby male researchers with better overall financial support, are enabled to do more research making them seem more attractive; a cycle whereby greater funding leads to greater research productivity leading to more funding. In the end, whatever the rationalisation for the male advantage throughout the DFF funding, the fact remains that male applicants have had better funding prospects at DFF than women for at least the last decade.

The increased success of male applicants at levels of 10–25% is at the margins of statistical detectability in small samples where the decisions are made, and so is hard to discover. But it can be found in the aggregated data. Such male advantage may be a significant contributor to the leaking pipeline that consistently removes more women than men from academia at each career stage.

Note: *The success rates by number of applications is higher, 26% for men and 21% for women, but the excess fractional success rate for men is still the same, at ~20%. We have projected the DFF statistics for 2014 based on previous average success rates and available funds, since these statistics are not currently available.

[Editor’s note: This is the first comment in a debate and response series on the YDUN programme and funding targeted at women, written by University of Copenhagen professors. Read the second and third comment here.]

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