Disadvantaged women

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Sir

Two items in your issue of 4 December, "Female scientists wanted — apply to UK research councils" and "No evidence of sexism in peer review" (Nature 390, 431 & 438; 1997), discuss the lower success rates of female scientists compared to their male colleagues in winning research grants. Both quote an undeniable statistic that a considerably smaller proportion of women apply for the grants in the first place, and both appear to be baffled by the cause.

In fact the cause is simple. A much smaller proportion of the women who are loosely head-counted as 'members of the department' are actually in established positions. Most are supported on short-term contracts and so are debarred from applying for their own research grants from that parent (but often the most appropriate) source.

Thus a large proportion of half the equally qualified adults in a given scientific discipline do not have the opportunities to form groups and attract collaborators. Yet those opportunities are crucial for building up the group expertise and reputations that the scientific world looks for when head-hunting.

If I were to apply for a grant to research this fundamental problem, I would not expect much support.

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