Gender-sensitive research funding procedures
Gender equality plans (GEPs) of research funding bodies should, on the one hand, address internal stakeholders and processes, similar to research-performing organisations (internal career development, internal decision-making and leadership, internal sexual harassment policies). On the other hand, external stakeholders and the whole funding cycle need to be addressed from a gender perspective. Allocating research grants needs to be done in a gender-sensitive and inclusive manner (read more in step 6, ‘Gender budgeting’). Research funding bodies should implement a comprehensive gender strategy covering internal and external processes.
Research funding bodies can become active in all steps where (potential) applicants are addressed, reviewers and panel members are approached and guided, and applications are discussed, assessed and funded or rejected. Gender activities start when a programme or grant is designed, and all data should be analysed for a redesign of the grant programme after a call is finished.
Gendering the funding cycle
In the following text, activities promoting gender equality are discussed on the basis of a typical funding programme / grant. Following a cyclic model, gender may be relevant in the various steps of this funding cycle (see figure below), for example when funding programmes are designed, when panel members are selected or when criteria are specified. The following paragraph describes the different steps of the funding cycle and how gender equality needs to be taken into account in these steps.
Figure: Funding cycle with gender relevance
In the initial phase, the programme management and all other relevant stakeholders start thinking about the objectives of the relevant call from a gender perspective.
Therefore, research funding bodies should collect statistical information on an annual basis (or on the previous call). Main areas to collect data on are the proportions of women and men among applicants and grantees, and the proportions of women and men on evaluation panels and among evaluators (by discipline, if relevant). As the integration of the sex/gender dimension into research and innovation (R & I) has become a funding principle in Horizon Europe, this should be requested in all funding programmes. Accordingly, specific data on the shares of funded and rejected applications integrating gender is needed (see also step 2 of the step-by-step guide for research funding bodies).
At this point, funding bodies should be aware that, by defining programme targets and specifying funding conditions (eligibility and assessment criteria, assessment procedure, etc.), they have an impact on individual researchers’ careers and on processes within research organisations, including universities.
This data should be made publicly available.
This phase comprises the opening of the call and its advertising and promotion, and addresses applicants and their queries. In addition, the selection of reviewers and/or panel members takes place in this phase.
As numerous funding bodies aim to make their funding programmes more attractive to women researchers, gender-sensitive language and images are required. In addition, including an explicit statement on the commitment of the research funding body to promoting gender equality might encourage more women to apply. Gender-proofing of call texts and contained images can impact the number of women who feel encouraged to apply. This is why the call text and images should be checked for gender inclusiveness, particularly in highly competitive and prestigious grants/programmes. If the call is promoted on a website or in newsletters, avoid gender-stereotypic wording and images. When presenting the call, always include gender statistics and gender targets of the funding body.
To attract more women, ask yourself which channels for distributing your funding calls you are currently using and if there are any others available that might target more diverse pools of potential applicants.
In this phase, you also start looking for and selecting reviewers and panel members: Who carries out the evaluations is relevant to a gender-fair evaluation outcome, which is why having a guideline with clear selection criteria is highly recommended. In accordance with the European research area (ERA) target to increase the share of women in decision-making bodies, research funding bodies should aim for more gender balance on evaluation panels, for example a 40/60 % men/women quota could be introduced. Some research bodies have increased their efforts to create a more diverse panel composition, yet they have reported that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit panel members. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that panels/boards are now (as of 2021) primarily meeting virtually may change the situation.
When recruiting reviewers and panel/board members, it is crucial to explicitly set out standards for a conflict of interest.
This phase covers applications, submissions and eligibility checks.
Increasing the share of women applicants is a target for a large number of research funding bodies. While some research funding bodies address the pool of potential women applicants explicitly, either through ‘ambassadors’ such as the developmentEuropean Research Council or through specific workshops informing on the call for women only (as carried out by Austrian Science Fund - FWF), sometimes staff members also approach gender networks or conferences to encourage women to apply for open grants. Science Foundation Ireland introduced a formal approach for increasing the number of women applicants and allowed a higher number of applications from one institution where women lead the projects: from each research funding body, men can lead a maximum of six projects; if the project leaders are women, six additional applications are possible.
A higher share of women in research teams can be achieved by asking all call applicants to indicate whether and how a sex/gender analysis is integrated into their research proposal (from the beginning) or explain why gender is not relevant to the proposed research. The benefits are twofold: on the one hand, these questions should attract more women to become members of research teams and, on the other hand, high-quality research outcomes can be expected, as the research questions are more tailored to different subgroups. Research funding bodies could offer awareness-raising activities and training for applicants to enable them to detect the gender relevance of their research and to conduct sex/gender analysis. The integration of the sex/gender dimension into research content is a strategy to enhance research excellence and to increase gender knowledge of researchers.
Support structures provided by research organisations play an increasing role in the application process. The smaller share of women applicants can also be attributed to ‘self-selection’: studies show that women tend to apply only when they assume that they have a good chance of succeeding (Ranga et al., 2012). Research organisations might need to encourage women researchers more to apply and provide dedicated gender-sensitive support structures (training not on weekends or in the evening, avoiding travel, etc.). Individualised support within a grant was implemented by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF); for example, mandatory mentoring is part of each early stage programme: research, innovation and training (ESPRIT) application. The aim is to have a mentor ‘assisting the principal investigator in their professional and personal career development’.
Possibilities to make care obligations in applications visible and to compensate for care are crucial elements of the eligibility check. Funding bodies can provide various forms of compensation, such as extending the period for applying (see the European Research Council), providing compensation for a care person (FWF) or introducing a supplemental discretionary allowance to enable funded research teams to provide a replacement for a team member going on maternity or adoptive leave. Be aware that reviewers need to know how to evaluate research performance in cases of non-linear career paths.
The next step in the funding cycle is the assessment of the applications. In this regard, gender might play a role with respect to the organisation of the assessment process and the definition of assessment criteria, aiming for full transparency and openness. Raising the awareness of reviewers and/or panel members and chairs about the formal policies in place and how to put them into practice in a gender-sensitive manner contributes to gender-fair funding outcomes.
Implementing clear evaluation guidelines and precise assessment criteria guarantees an improved assessment process and minimises gender bias.
Eligibility criteria need to be gender-sensitive, for example by taking into account that researchers have a slower career progression due to time for caring or sabbaticals. To increase the gender awareness of the research community, your funding body should provide costs for capacity building, such as for gender training, gender coaching or mentoring.
Assessment criteria can, in themselves, be a potential factor for gender bias. Measuring the quality of researchers or their research on the basis of bibliometric, journal-based indicators has been heavily criticised from a gender perspective: women who have less time to publish, who have smaller networks and are therefore less likely to get invited to join collaborations or publications, or who are less cited will very likely also have a lower overall research performance. To counteract bias here, some funding bodies have limited the number of publications that can be listed in the application.
Excellence is at the core of assessing research and researchers, yet criteria to measure excellence are often vague. Excellence is related to the image of the ‘ideal scientist’, characterised by a linear career path, high-impact points and high self-confidence, relevant in particular for panel interviews. The Dutch funding body NWO has worked on the implementation of a broader and more diverse image of good science and a good scientist. For reviewers and panel members, a video was produced to reflect on the ideal image and to identify personal bias.
Other approaches to improve the ways in which researchers and research outputs are evaluated have been developed by the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). Alternative assessment policies and practices, such as narrative curriculum vitae (CVs), are increasingly applied by research funding bodies. A collection of good practices that illustrate various forms of alternative research and researcher assessment is available here.
A narrative CV takes into account a broader range of research outputs (papers, databases, policy briefings), not only publications and citations. Thus, applicants are asked not to reference their impact factor or h-index. Reviewers need to focus on the impact of the research in the field when considering publications and other research outputs. In the future, awareness will be needed of potential new gender equality challenges, for example what new biases the implementation of a narrative CV could bring about.
For applicants with a non-traditional career path or with caregiving responsibilities, a different assessment would be to look at the research opportunity’, which considers how a researcher’s productivity and contribution throughout their career correspond to the opportunities that were available to them.
When asking for the integration of the sex/gender dimension into research, be aware that assessing the relevance of gender in proposals in various fields requires specific expertise. Reviewers therefore need specific training or a co-assessor with sound gender competence.
Remote reviewers are often kept out of the picture, as it is more difficult for research funding bodies to engage them and make them committed to the (gender equality) standards applied. This is why it is crucial to give clear instructions for how to do remote assessment. Research funding bodies are encouraged to find ways to increase the gender awareness of remote reviewers. One option to distinguish the assessment of the researcher and the proposed research is to first assess the proposal anonymously, and only then get access to the CV, which should be supported by the information technology infrastructure, for example by providing access to CVs only after the assessment of the research proposal was submitted.
In panel meetings, you should have a clear list of criteria to be discussed and make sure that the same criteria are applied to each applicant. This should be communicated explicitly in briefing meetings for reviewers and panel/board members.
The panel chair has an important role in guaranteeing that everyone plays by the same rules, and this also applies to gender equality. Here, the panel chair might encourage all members to reflect on gender and the share of women applicants in all steps of the assessment process.
To improve the assessment process, it is recommended to have constant gender equality observers, who are either external gender experts or specifically trained internal staff. They can evaluate and report whether and how gender bias is manifested in the discussion of proposals. Findings can then be integrated into the evaluation process (e.g. this has been practised by the Swedish Research Council for a decade).
If panels meet physically, try to be careful with the seating arrangements: women and younger panel members should optimally sit close to the panel chair to encourage them to actively join the negotiations.
The language used in panels should be gender-inclusive; it is recommended to avoid names and pronouns that would indicate an applicant’s gender.
Check if a double-blind review process is possible in order to mitigate bias.
To be able to improve the process and the assessment criteria from a gender-sensitive perspective, it is necessary to raise awareness among panel members and chairs before they start their work, for example by watching a video and answering questions. Taking reviewers’ / panel members’ limited time resources into account, a clear statement by the research body’s management is required as to the mandatory participation in this gender training. You can find examples of awareness-raising activities and training for evaluators on unconscious bias in tab 2 ‘Videos and webinars’.
The phase of final decision-making covers different steps to find a final solution, such as internal triage/shortlisting, panel/interview assessment or re-ranking. Here, it makes a difference whether the final decision is taken by the panel or by a management body such as a scientific board.
Some research bodies apply a gender quota for women to be funded (e.g. at least 40 % or equal share of women grantees as share of women applicants). Science Foundation Ireland has recently introduced a tiebreaking approach, weighting pro-equality and preferring women applicants when they have equal scores as their men colleagues. This implies that gender needs to be taken into account in the negotiation and final decision-making process.
In addition, aiming for gender-balanced evaluation panels and other decision-making boards contributes to more gender inclusiveness. Again, it is important to provide gender awareness-raising activities for members of management and decision-making bodies.
Setting up a clear monitoring strategy and analysing all collected call data enables a research funding body to be informed about the progress on gender equality at the level of a programme or grant.
By applying indicators, such as the number of participants in training programmes or budget spent on specific measures, it can be checked on a short-term basis whether gender objectives are met or adaptations need to be implemented. It also helps to maintain the accountability of the stakeholders involved. Furthermore, the GEP criterion of the European Commission requires research funding bodies to present data annually.
As intersectionality is of increasing relevance, research funding bodies are encouraged to extend their monitoring system in this direction.
Part of the monitoring at call level is also to produce final evaluation reports for applicants and panel reports, which need to be written in gender-sensitive and inclusive language.
Furthermore, any post-granting activities (e.g. changes to the principal investigator, financial compliance, extension in the case of illness) need to be addressed from a gender perspective.
More information on monitoring can be found in step 5 of the step-by-step guide for research funding bodies.
The final step is the evaluation of the funding programme / grant with respect to the gender targets. Once all final data along all steps of the funding cycle is available, the funding body needs to check whether all objectives were met and where adaptations for a next call are needed.
At the core of evaluation is the analysis of all granted and non-granted applications with respect to gender, discipline (where relevant) and other categories (addressing gender). Checking the gender distribution in each step of the evaluation process based on clearly identified indicators might help to gain detailed insights and to identify where interventions are needed.
As the panel is a crucial entity for negotiations, assessment and decision-making, all data should be analysed at panel level to learn about differences and to identify potential interventions.
Evaluation should also cover qualitative aspects, such as a check of biased language used in panel discussions or evaluation reports, as well as in the call text or guidelines for reviewers / panel members. In that regard, a language scan, applying linguistic software, could be useful.
All relevant data and learnings should be reported to national authorities and the public in order to guarantee accountability, but also to provide the funding body – and other stakeholders – with insights for the design of future programmes/grants.
More information on evaluation can be found in step 5 of the step-by-step guide for research funding bodies.
Monitoring and evaluation deliver crucial information on gender-sensitive funding outcomes and processes ahead of the funding decision. Funding bodies need to take time to reflect on the learnings and how to integrate them in the next funding cycle. By aiming to improve each step from a gender and intersectional perspective, the design of a funding programme / grant can be adjusted, grant allocation can be optimised and gender equality in research funding can be constantly enhanced.
Here are some examples of measures implemented in other funding organisations (note that they will open in a new window).
Example of awareness-raising and capacity building
- Blind assessment, Villum Foundation, Denmark.
Examples of monitoring and evaluation
- Monitoring equal opportunities, Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Austria.
- Observatory of Research and Scientific Careers of the FRS-FNRS, FNRS Fund for Scientific Research, Belgium.
Examples of gender equality plan development and implementation
- GEP 2020–2027, Estonian Research Council, Estonia.
- GEP, Academy of Finland, Finland.
- GEP, Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding (UEFISCDI), Romania.
Examples of gender equality in recruitment and career progression
- Implementation of target 3 of their gender equality, Research and Innovation Foundation, Cyprus.
- Small grant scheme for female scientists in technical sciences, National Centre for Research and Development, Poland.
- Supporting young mother researchers, The National Research, Development and Innovation Office, Hungary.
- Enterprise Ireland 2020 action plan for women in business, Enterprise Ireland, Ireland.
- Gender equality in the national R & I funding programme FUSION, Malta Council for Science and Technology, Malta.
Example of gender balance in leadership and decision-making
- Spokesperson budget, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany.
Examples of integrating gender into research and teaching
- Gender in research fellowship, The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw), the Netherlands.
- Women and Science Committee, Spanish National Research Council, Spain.
- Equal funding of innovations, Vinnova, Sweden.
- Model for equal distribution of research funds, Kristianstad University, Sweden.
You can find further inspiring practice examples in the following sources:
- the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) provides a section on good practices for various relevant topics;
- these sustainable measures were already mentioned in the first version of the gender equality in academia and research (GEAR) tool and are still in place.
If you want to learn more about how you can adjust these measures for your own purposes and how to implement them through a GEP, read the step-by-step guide for research organisations, universities and public bodies, or the step-by-step guide for research funding organisations.
- Watch this video , in which L. Schiebinger of Stanford University discusses gendered innovations and the sex/gender dimension in research funding.
- This ‘Gender equality in the European research area community to innovate policy implementation’ (GENDERACTION) project video gives an overview of how funding agencies can contribute to the promotion of gender equality in R & I.
- A practical guide for research evaluators with six steps for a more holistic approach is provided by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (Fonds National de la Recherche (FNR)) and DORA in this video and the associated document.
- The project ‘Supporting the promotion of equality in research and academia’ (SUPERA) provides three webinars concerning gender equality in research funding bodies. The first webinar is about the GEP of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia as a research funding body and about a practical experience of gender mainstreaming in research funding. The second webinar deals with gender bias and ways for research funding bodies to combat it. The third webinar presents two experiences with gender equality policies and measures regarding funding research in Spain.
- This video from the Royal Society gives a short general introduction to unconscious bias.
- The European Research Council shows this video before remote assessments and panel meetings. It contains a step-by-step explanation about where recruitment bias can occur in research institutions.
- An Irish research body has produced the following two videos on assessment practices: ‘What happens before a panel meeting?’ and ‘What happens at a panel meeting?’
Various funding bodies collaborated in the ‘Funding organisations for gender equality’ (FORGEN) project, a community of practice within the EU-funded project ACT, to further develop gender in research funding. Project outcomes can be found here.
How funding bodies can shape an inclusive and gender-fair research system is discussed in a policy brief of the GENDERACTION project.
This ‘Gender equality in engineering through communication and commitment’ (GEECCO) project report provides general instructions for funding bodies in the section on dos and don’ts for research funding organisations (pp. 34–38). You can find insights and experiences gained by research funding organisations when integrating gender equality issues into their organisations at different stages.
A reading list containing further information for research funding organisations was made available by the SUPERA project.
The GEP of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia (in Italian) shows what a GEP for research funding organisations could look like and what measures it may contain.
NWO developed a comprehensive approach to avoiding unconscious bias and making the picture of the ideal scientist more inclusive. Science Europe’s Practical guide to improving gender equality in research organisations provides guidance on how to avoid unconscious bias in the peer-review process, how to monitor gender equality and how to improve grant management practices.
Supporting Women in Research – Policies, programs and initiatives undertaken by public research funding agencies published by the Global Research Council, is a collection of concrete gender measures implemented by funders from all parts of the world, embedded in different national and cultural contexts and starting from very different levels of gender awareness. The action fields cover policy frameworks and awareness-raising, sex-disaggregated data collection and analysis, ‘research opportunity’ instead of ‘track record only’, equality and diversity training, addressing institutional barriers, integrating the sex/gender dimension into research, family-friendly policies and monitoring practices on a periodic basis.
Information about gender in research funding in general, and about challenges of and recommendations for improving transparency, can be found in this report by the Gender and Excellence Expert Group.
SUPERA developed a tool that collects relevant resources and examples of measures that research funding bodies can use to promote gender equality during the typical cycle of a call for proposals.
This policy brief from the GENDERACTION project lists gender equality measures and recommendations specific to research funding bodies and presents projects by research funding bodies that are considered good practices.
This GEECCO report summarises best-practice examples of the implementation of gender equality measures in research funding bodies regarding gender mainstreaming.
To encourage more women applicants, see the findings from EU-funded projects that have been reviewing their communication channels and the way that calls are worded and structured. The GEECCO project has compiled a List of Principles of Communication of Gender Criteria.
The DFG has provided a training module for members of the head office. The first training session included lectures on stereotypes and implicit bias, among other topics. In a subsequent workshop, these aspects were further discussed in relation to the practical aspects of the evaluation and decision-making processes at the DFG.
Instructions for how to avoid gender stereotypes in language use can be found in this guideline produced by SUPERA.
Experiences of practitioners in implementing gender equality elements in funding instruments were published in the article ‘Practitioners’ perspectives: a funder’s experience of addressing gender balance in its portfolio of awards’.
Best-practice examples of gender equality measures in funding bodies (not GEPs) have been provided by GEECCO.
Gender equality in the evaluation process
DORA collected good practices and position papers from various funding bodies on methods for assessing research careers.
The gender sector of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation organised a workshop en titled ‘Implicit gender biases during evaluations: how to raise awareness and change attitudes?’ It helped participants to understand what implicit/unconscious gender biases are, how they come up in evaluative processes and how they can be addressed within Horizon 2020. You can read the report of the workshop here.
The recommendations presented by Science Europe in this position paper provide a framework on which research funding bodies can base their assessment processes and work together to reduce the increasing burden on the system and address the challenges.
This guideline published by the project GEECCO supports staff of research funding organisations and reviewers of research proposals in promoting gender equality in the evaluation process. On the one hand, the guideline offers various recommendations concerning activities that strengthen gender balance among peer reviewers and members of committees and boards involved in the evaluation. On the other hand, it provides guidance on increasing gender sensitivity and diversity awareness in the evaluation of research proposals. This addresses the elimination of unconscious gender and other biases, the consideration of career breaks and the revision of common research-performing indicators.
This report from the GEECCO project gives an overview of gender criteria for funding programmes and assesses them. It describes possible gender-specific criteria that can be applied by research funding bodies at different levels and also includes a selection of existing criteria already implemented by research funding bodies of different types.
The Federation of Finnish Learned Societies produced guidelines to improve the assessment of researchers in Finland. The report provides a set of general principles that apply throughout recommended good practices.
The paper ‘A review of barriers women face in research funding processes in the UK’ critically examines barriers and biases women are faced with when applying for research funding in the United Kingdom. Various barriers were identified and were subdivided into institutional (e.g. lack of support) and systematic barriers (e.g. maternity leave or requirement to travel), which are explained in this review.
The Guideline for jury members, reviewers and research funding organisations’ employees by GEECCO provides recommendations on fostering gender equality in the evaluation process for research funding organisations’ employees and evaluators of research proposals (peer reviewers and members of evaluation committees and panels).
GEECCO also published a report entitled Overview and assessment of gender criteria for funding programmes.
Information on and useful recommendations for communication activities can be found in the List of Principles of Communication of Gender Criteria, published by GEECCO.
Sex/gender dimension in research
The DFG explains the relevance of sex, gender and diversity in research on its website and provides examples of how these dimensions are considered in different disciplines. Moreover, it provides a checklist for identifying whether a research topic is gender-relevant.
The EU-funded GENDER-NET project developed the integrating gender analysis into research (IGAR) tool. Special guidelines and checklists for IGAR were developed for research funding organisations, grant applicants and peer reviewers / evaluators. Useful references and examples have also been made available, along with IGAR indicators.
Information on how research funding organisations assess the integration of gender in research content and research teams can be found in GEECCO’s Analysis of current data on gender in research and teaching, GEECCO’s Overview and assessment of gender criteria for funding programmes and the exhibition by GEECCO on integrating sex/gender dimensions in the content of R & I.
The Manual with guidelines for assessment/evaluation of the gender dimension in research content from the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic provides support for integrating the sex/gender dimension into research goals, methodology and proposals. The guidelines are addressed to grant applicants, peer reviewers and rapporteurs.
The report Gender-disaggregated data at the participating organisations of the Global Research Council: Results of a global survey addresses the sex/gender dimension in research in section 4, and provides information and results of a survey.
Science Foundation Ireland provides information on how to integrate a sex/gender dimension into research in its guidance for applicants on ethical and scientific issues.
The EU-funded GENDER-NET project published Manuals with guidelines on the integration of sex and gender analysis into research contents, recommendations for curricula development and indicators, which includes a manual dedicated to research funding organisations.
This report from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg examines how research funding organisations work globally to promote the inclusion of the sex/gender dimension in R & I. The results of a worldwide survey among research funding organisations reveals how the research funding organisations organise their work, and presents common challenges and the consequences of different measures, priorities and decisions.
Gender equality in recruitment and career progression
>Science Foundation Ireland has been successful in increasing the number of women award holders. Therefore, it initiated a measure that incentivises research-performing organisations to support and encourage excellent women candidates to apply for funding, since there was an opportunity to double the number of applicants the research institution could put forward with each woman applicant nominated. It summarises four types of implemented initiatives: (1) pre-award activities, (2) post-award activities, (3) changes to existing funding programmes and (4) the creation of a new funding programme.
The strategies for effecting gender equality and institutional change (StratEGIC) toolkit provides advice on strategic interventions based on research from the programmes of institutions that have undertaken institutional transformation projects under the (US) National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE programme.
The GEECCO log journal tutorial addresses needs and change processes related to monitoring the implementation of gender equality measures at research funding organisations/bodies. It is a knowledge resource for relevant quantitative indicators for monitoring progress towards gender equality objectives at research funding bodies. Besides the tutorial, GEECCO offers an Excel template.
The Global Research Council has been active in providing information on how to take the COVID-19 pandemic into account in inclusive research funding. A questionnaire on how to find out what to do in your funding body can be found here. Concrete gender measures addressing COVID-19 effects on researchers are described here.
R. Morgan and C. Wenham introduced their article ‘Putting a gender lens on COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) funded research’, published in The Lancet, at FORGEN’s workshop, which highlighted gender equality challenges in R & I funding during the pandemic.