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New campaign to put an end to male-dominated research funds

The boards in Denmark’s research foundations are predominantly men, and male researchers are more likely to get funding than their female colleagues. With the Promote Me campaign, associate professor Vanessa Jane Hall wants to correct this gender imbalance.

In August, associate professor in anatomy and physiology Vanessa Jane Hall took part in a course on women and careers at the University of Copenhagen.

Here Professor Jens Hjorth from the Niels Bohr Institute presented a 2015 calculation showing that her male colleagues were 20 per cent more likely to get funding for their research than she was.

“I wasn’t aware that there was gender inequality when it comes to getting funding. Apart from this, it was very inspiring to meet other female researchers, who had the same challenges as I have had,” says Vanessa Jane Hall, who is from Australia and has been working at the University of Copenhagen for ten years.

30 per cent is not good enough

So she decided to do something about the problem. At the end of September, she launched the Promote Me campaign which focuses on gender inequality in Danish research funds.

It’s not an isolated issue. All the research funds except the Innovation Fund Denmark have a skewed gender distribution in their boards of directors

Vanessa Jane Hall, associate professor and initiator of Promoteme.co

As part of the campaign, she has collected data on the percentage of women who sit on the boards of Danish research funds. The data shows that there are between 25.6 and 44.4 per cent women on the boards of Danish research funds. One fund, the IRFD, however, had 66.6 per cent female representation.

“I am not trying to shame anyone, but just to show the facts. It’s not an isolated issue. All the research funds except the Innovation Fund Denmark have a skewed gender distribution in their boards of directors. And when the balance is skewed, then a count like this can perhaps help foster more focus on gender diversity in the funds. The purpose is to create more awareness in this area,” says Vanessa Jane Hall and adds:

“The Independent Research Fund Denmark, for example, has 58 per cent women in their academic council for culture and communication. This is great, but this is an exception. I am not in favour of quotas for women, but they should be able to do better than 25-30 per cent female members which is the case of the boards for most foundations,” she explains.

Fewer women get grants

According to Vanessa Jane Hall it is another problem that fewer women researchers apply for, and receive, research grants than their male colleagues. In this context, the funds’ application processes play a role.

“Of course, you should only highlight female researchers who are just as qualified as their male colleagues. But there is nothing to suggest that the female applicants for research grants are less competent than the male applicants. There is, on the other hand, a lot of research that supports the contention that there is a gender bias in favour of men in science,” says Vanessa Jane Hall.

Even if you take into account the number of female versus male grant applicants, there is still a male advantage
Vanessa Jane Hall, founder of the ‘Promote Me’ campaign

She refers to a Princeton study from 2012 with a randomised, anonymised survey, where a panel from a faculty assessed a male applicant as significantly more competent and worthy of employment than a corresponding female applicant.

But there are also fewer female applicants for courses such as physics or chemistry?

“Clearly. But even if you accept the lower number of female versus male applicants, there is still a distortion to the men’s advantage. Denmark is a great country, where we have a long maternity leave. But this has the negative consequence that women fall behind relative to their male colleagues. And this could mean that women who have taken maternity leave, do not always have the same number of published scientific articles as their male colleagues. But the funds may not always take this into account in their application processes,” says Vanessa Jane Hall.

Leave extends PhD age

The Board of Directors in independent research fund Denmark consists of 33 per cent women (3 out of 9 members), but according to their own gender policy, they “aim to ensure that the Board of Directors, the academic councils, the panels and the thematic committees are at least 40 per cent women”.

The number of female members in the various academic councils that award research grants, is also about 30 per cent or slightly below. There are, however, 66 per cent women on the Council for Culture and Communication.

“We have gone to great lengths to have women on the board of directors and in our academic councils. But we have had a challenge in recruiting enough women to the board for the science, technology and health scientific councils. And it needs to be someone who has academic expertise in the field,” explains chairman of the board Peter Munk Christiansen.

He emphasises that the fund supports the best projects. But they have tried to draw up rules to ensure that they also safeguard the interests of female applicants.

“We do not, naturally, give money to female researchers who have made worse applications. But we know that there are various factors that mean that there are fewer women who apply. And our goal is that female researchers should preferably have the same success rate as their male colleagues. It has to reflect the outside world. ”

What have you specifically done to get more women to apply for your grants?

“We have one tool – sapere aude – where you as a maximum can apply for eight years after having completed your PhD. But if you have taken maternity/paternity leave, we multiply the number by two. That is, you have a longer period of time to apply. And we know that it is often women who take the longest maternity/paternity leave and that are most affected by maternity/paternity leave. But this should not mean that their likelihood of applying is reduced,” explains Peter Munk Christiansen.

Anonymised applicants

Another fund that is trying to do things differently, the Villum Foundation, has created something called Villum Experiment for specific research projects that challenge norms. Each researcher can apply for between DKK 1 and 2 million. As part of the basic idea, the applicant is anonymous to the assessment committee.

“We would like to see if it was possible to assess the applicants in a different way than we usually do. We want to find out whether we could assess the ideas in their own right, and in this way give the original and innovative idea an alternative way to find traction.”

The assessors will be asked to place emphasis on the ideas that they perceive as real breakthroughs, and which are high risk in terms of success. The idea of anonymising the applicants is to sharpen our focus on the research idea,” explains research director Thomas Bjørnholm.

We want to find out whether we could assess the ideas in their own right, and in this way give the original and innovative idea an alternative way to find traction.
Thomas Bjørnholm, Director of Research in the Villum Foundation

The Villum Experiment has only been running since 2017, but the results so far have been positive, according to Thomas Bjørnholm.

“What we can see so far is that we get a more diverse pool of applicants, both in terms of departments and in terms of research background. There are PhD students and top professors. We have also carried out interview surveys that show that the applicants see the experiment as a breath of fresh air. People say that it has given them other opportunities to apply for funding. Time will tell whether excellent research comes out of it. We hope so,” he says.

Vanessa Jane Hall is enthusiastic about the Villum Experiment trial with anonymised submission processes.

“In the United States, it is more usual to anonymise funding applications. And if the Villum Foundation can show that it actually makes sense to anonymise the applicants, then maybe other funds will follow suit. It is my impression that many people are interested in finding out whether they can do things differently,” she says.

Focus on gender diversity

One of the funds that also focusses on gender diversity, is the Innovation Fund Denmark. The board of directors consists of 44.4 per cent women. There is a reason for this,” explains head of communications Pernille Rype.

We hope to find out how we can get more women to apply – and we encourage universities to also ensure that more women researchers apply to us. Because we cannot change things alone

Pernille Rype, head of communications at the Innovation Fund Denmark

“It’s the Ministry of Research and Education which appoints the board of directors. And this is something that there has been a focus on. Also in the management group, which I am a part of. Here there are two men and three women. And it is something that our director has a focus on in the entire organisation.”

At the Innovation Fund Denmark, they are working out a diversity policy with specific targets.

“We have found a bias where more men than women apply for our grants. At the beginning of October, we presented an analysis with McKinsey that examines how we can get more talented women in play and how we can improve the gender balance in STEM subjects. At the Innovation Fund Denmark, we have just presented several initiatives that focus on gender diversity. We are in the process of appointing female ambassadors in all our programmes. We have planned to run a pilot project with our entrepreneurial programme, Innofounder, where we look at the entire application process and the way we describe and market the scheme. And we are looking at whether we can anonymise application processes, ” Pernille Rype explains.

The plan is that Innovation Fund Denmark uses the lessons learned from the entrepreneur project InnoFounder in other areas. And the fund is reviewing their application processes in general.

“We are reviewing our application form for research projects, Grand Solutions, and the idea is that we interview a number of qualified female researchers to hear why they have not applied. We hope to find out how we can get more women to apply – and we encourage universities to also ensure that more women researchers apply to us. Because we cannot change things alone,” says Pernille Rype.

Collecting signatures

As a part of the campaign Vanessa Jane Hall has started a petition to improve the gender balance in research. One of the objectives is to focus more on the gender balance in both the boards of the Danish research funds, but also among researchers who receive grants from the funds.

226 Danish and foreign researchers have signed the petition so far. When 500 have signed, the signatures will be sent to the research funds and to Minister for Research and Education Tommy Ahlers.

I hope that there will be more women in the funds’ boards of directors when you check back in a year or two

Vanessa Jane Hall, founder of the ‘Promote Me’ campaign

“So far, the site has been shared on social media. I hope that it reaches people at the universities and sets off a debate on gender balance in research. I have got a good response from both male and female researchers. If there is any negative feedback, I haven’t heard it yet,” says Vanessa Hall, laughing.

“It seems as if there is a greater focus on diversity in research and that things are about to change. Many research funds already have a policy on gender equality and diversity. ”

What do you hope to achieve with the campaign?

“I hope to create a greater awareness that there is a gender imbalance. And that all the funds will consider how their application processes work. And if they are having problems with gender diversity, to draw inspiration from others who have achieved good results. I hope that there will be more women in the funds’ boards of directors when you check back in a year or two,” says Vanessa Jane Hall.

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