Mysterious disappearance of female investigators


The results of the first year's European Young Investigator (EURYI) awards are worrying. The awards provide 25 young scientists with up to €1.25 million to establish research teams in Europe. Only three of the 25 initial recipients were women, far below the percentage working in science at the targeted career stage. This was not because women didn't apply in sufficient numbers: nearly a quarter of the applicants were female. Rather, male applicants were twice as likely to succeed.

EURYI applications were first submitted to the relevant national research councils, who could nominate a specific number of candidates. This selection cut the proportion of women from one-quarter to one-fifth. Each national research council oversaw a drop in the number of selected women. In Spain, where nearly a third of the applicants were women, not one was nominated. The all-male Spanish list emerged with the highest success rate in the later European rounds, nearly three times the average. From 133 national nominees, European evaluation committees created a shortlist of 67, causing the largest drop in the proportion of women: 9.9±0.5% of men applying made the European shortlist, but only 4.7±1.4% of women did.

The working paper Evaluation of the EURYI Awards Scheme by L. Langfeldt and K. E. Brofoss (NIFU STEP, Oslo, 2005), commissioned by the European Science Foundation (ESF), with access to a limited data set including assessments of candidates at the European evaluations and sample applications, recently concluded: “the main problem remains that the scheme ... attracts far fewer female applicants”. The report also suggested that “female applicants had a somewhat higher tendency to be filtered out” at the domestic level but that there was “no evidence of bias” at a European level.

However, the statistics are clear: the consistent attrition of women at each stage, and the large size of the sample, mean that women's lack of success cannot have occurred by fluke. The random chance probability of halving the female fraction from one end of the competition to the other is only 0.05%.

The ‘leaking pipe’ phenomenon (in which a disproportionate number of women leave the sciences at each career stage) is often attributed to a complex array of external factors that cause women to drop out. In this case, we believe we are seeing a leaking pipe in the stages of a single competition. Does this mean more straightforward explanations for the career leakage may be possible?

Without a detailed knowledge of applications and judging criteria, it is impossible to nail down the underlying reasons for the inequality in the awards. We would like to replicate the groundbreaking analysis of Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold (“Nepotism and sexism in peer review” Nature 387, 341–343; 1997) at the European level, but the ESF has so far been unwilling to release the necessary data to us.

We consider that this attrition demands further independent scrutiny to uncover the cause.

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Watson, D., Andersen, A. & Hjorth, J. Mysterious disappearance of female investigators. Nature 436, 174 (2005) doi:10.1038/436174a

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