Women in Health Science

New Initiative to Fund Australia’s Top Female Health Researchers

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will fund 34 more of Australia’s most talented female researchers through a new initiative aimed at reducing the difference in funded rates between male and female lead investigators.

Every year, more men apply to the Project Grants scheme than women and every year funded rates are higher for men than women.

Gender equality in health and medical research is important as organisations with gender equality better promote an environment where innovation can flourish.[1]

NHMRC is working to address the difference between funded rates for male and female lead investigators. Men achieve on average 4 per cent higher funded rates than women under NHMRC’s largest funding scheme ­­– Project Grants (Figure 1).

Leading research provides researchers with the opportunity to generate knowledge and advance the health of Australians and has a positive impact on a researcher’s career path.

NHMRC has funded an additional 34 female lead investigators to increase the funding rate to 15.3 per cent, reducing the difference in the funding rate by gender to 1.8 per cent. The funded rate for men will remain unchanged at 17.1 per cent.

This initiative is aimed at improving the retention and progression of women in health and medical research. Analysis of funded rates of NHMRC Project Grants over the last 17 years shows that the disparity in funded rates between male and female lead investigators has not declined over time. Therefore, initiatives such as this are needed if we are to see improvements.

Figure 1: Project Grant outcomes by lead investigator gender, 2001-2017

NHMRC is continuing to fund research excellence. All applications funded as a result of this initiative are highly competitive and have received at least a Category 5 score (very good) on a scale from 1-7.

NHMRC is focusing on the Project Grants scheme in 2017 because more than 50 per cent of Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) funding is administered through this scheme and it is where the evidence of long-standing inequality is strongest. An independent analysis of NHMRC data was conducted by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM). A summary of Project Grants results is available:

Gender Equality – A Priority for NHMRC

NHMRC is investing in women through the Project Grants scheme as part of its long standing commitment to improving gender equality in the health and medical research sector – a key priority in the NHMRC Corporate Plan 2017-2018

Why is it important?

Improving the retention and progression of women is important because evidence shows that:

  • organisations with the most gender diversity outperform those with the least
  • it enhances an organisation’s ability to attract and retain employees, and
  • gender equality and other diversity measures promote an environment where innovation can flourish.

Other NHMRC Gender Equality Initiatives

This initiative is part of a suite of strategies aimed at improving the retention and progression of women in health and medical research which include:

  • introducing gender equality policy requirements for all NHMRC Administering Institutions
  • drawing on expert advice through the NHMRC Women in Health Science Working Committee
  • introducing the Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowship, awarded to outstanding female Research Fellows
  • introducing policies to take career disruption and ‘relative to opportunity’ considerations into account during peer review
  • offering part-time opportunities across all NHMRC schemes
  • introducing operational improvements to support those with carer responsibilities, e.g. not sending out emails with deadlines attached on Friday afternoons or after 2pm
  • introducing videoconferencing to facilitate the participation of people with carer responsibilities on NHMRC peer review panels
  • supporting the Australian Academy of Science’s Athena SWAN pilot – the Athena SWAN Charter evolved from partnership between the Athena Project and the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN)
  • aligning NHMRC’s gender equality work with the Australian Research Council, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, including the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) Entrepreneurship project, and other government initiatives
  • publishing all scheme outcome data by gender.

NHMRC Partnering with the Sector to Improve Gender Equality

The issues facing women researchers are complex. We will continue to work with the sector to promote gender equality in access to NHMRC funding and in the wider health and medical research sector. For example, in 2015 NHMRC introduced seven requirements into the Administering Institution policy to support gender equality in the health and medical research sector. Better practice examples from Administering Institutions include:

  • targets for the progression of women, for example 40 per cent of senior (level D and E and higher education worker level 10) staff to be female by 2016.
  • Women’s Development Programs for women seeking senior leadership roles
  • travel support for researchers travelling with a child and carer, and
  • return to work fellowships, and flexible work options, for both men and women who have been on parental leave.

Further information on the Project Grants 2017 announcement:

Further information

Leading by example

Challenging bias and ensuring fair and inclusive funding processes

Supporting change in Australia’s research community

[1] Bell S, Yates L (2015)
Women in the Science Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage. [online] Available at http://www.womeninscienceresearch.org.au/index.html [Accessed 17 November 2017].