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US national academy pushes to make grants contingent on gender equity

Funders should audit institutions’ policies to include and promote women, recommends report.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Marine biologist Sylvia Earle.Credit: Alan Diaz/AP/Shutterstock

The US national academy is urging funders to subject institutions to ‘equity audits’ to increase the representation of women — especially those from minority ethnic groups — in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

Among other recommendations in a 200-page report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine proposes that, as part of the grant-evaluation process, funding agencies conduct thorough examinations of institutions’ policies to promote gender equity. In theory, institutions would do more to improve gender equity if funding were at stake, says Vivian Pinn, a member of the committee that created the report and the founding director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The report suggests that audit results should be made available to the public, which could amplify the pressure. If institutions know that many eyes are upon them, they might come to see equity as “more important at all levels of leadership than perhaps it was in the past”, Pinn says.

In practice, she says, it would be impossible to force funding agencies to police all the institutions they support, and any sort of formal system with passes and fails would be impractical. But, she adds, the mere concept of an equity audit could encourage institutions to pay closer attention to gender equity in recruitment, retention and advancement.

Equity audits could be especially effective if they were supported by real resources and positive incentives for change, says Sindy Escobar-Alvarez, the senior programme officer for medical research at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York City. She and her colleagues discussed how funding agencies can promote gender equity last year in The Lancet (S. N. Escobar Alvarez et al. Lancet 393, E9–E11; 2020).

Escobar-Alvarez warns that equity audits could also have unintended consequences. If history serves as a guide, she says, it’s likely that women would bear much of the administrative burden. “Female faculty members might be tasked with gathering and analysing the data for an equity audit more often than men,” she says. “Such efforts would require a great deal of time and could take women away from research and teaching activities that help to get them promoted.”

Escobar-Alvarez adds that funding organizations don’t need a formal auditing system to work closely with institutions. For example, her organization has started a Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists, which provides money to help support early-career faculty members with childcare or other caring responsibilities. Participating institutions include Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

The National Academies report points to fundamental obstacles facing women in STEMM, including bias, discrimination and harassment. Until those factors are addressed, equity audits can only do so much, Pinn says.

“This isn’t about ‘fixing’ women,” she says. “This is about changing the institutional organizations in which they have to survive. The system needs to be more accommodating and more supportive.”

Nature 580, 296 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00865-0

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