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No surprise that research and innovation exposed to gender bias

SFI taking more direct action to address diversity at all levels of the innovation process

It may come as somewhat of a surprise, but scientific research and innovation activity is just as prone to gender bias and a lack of diversity as any other field of human endeavour. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director of science for society Dr Ruth Freeman says this has been an issue for a long time.

“Data on gender has been left out of important innovations for many years,” she notes. “Take car seat belts, for example. They were designed for a particular size and shape of male body and that has resulted in females suffering more injuries than males in car accidents.”

This was one of the many cases cited in the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. This tells us that most offices are five degrees too cold for women, because the temperature is based on what's comfortable for a 40-year-old, 70kg man. More shockingly, it revealed that women in Britain are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack because heart failure trials generally use male participants.

And this bias isn’t restricted to human trial participants. “Animal testing is part of the drug development process,” Freeman explains. “Females have inconvenient hormonal cycles, which you don’t get so much with males. That means male animals are almost invariably used for testing.”

This indicates a need for much greater diversity at all levels of the innovation process, according to Freeman. “In some ways it seems so obvious. At the heart of innovation is finding new ways of doing things and developing new products or processes for people. The diversity of the people involved in the innovation matters. Otherwise, how do you know if you are getting it right if there is no one there to challenge assumptions and opinions. People are not cookie cutters, we come in all different types. We haven’t done a good enough job of thinking about that over the years.”

SFI has been taking steps to address the issue and the organisation has put in place a gender strategy. “When we receive funding applications we ask if there is a gender aspect to the project. If there isn’t, we ask them to explain why. If there is, we ask them to explain why it is relevant.”

There is also a shortage of female applicants. “During the Covid-19 Rapid Response Call one thing that struck me was that we received very, very few applications from female researchers,” she notes. “This relates to a different issue. We know that female academics ability to work from home is impacted more than that of their male colleagues as females tend to pick up more of the domestic and caring responsibilities.”

And when they do apply, they tend to fare worse than male applicants. “Females get less grant funding and apply for less money. It’s almost as if they have been conditioned to be less ambitious.”

That might well be the case. Studies of funding awards data show that women are not rated as favourably by awarding bodies even when their research proposals are comparable with those of their male counterparts. Part of this relates to women’s CVs receiving lower scores than male CVs for no rational reason.

"A large study in Canada showed that leaving out the CVs from the research proposal would eliminate some of the bias," Freeman adds.

Women first

SFI is taking more direct action to address the issue. “If a woman needs a better CV than a man to get the same score we need to do something about that. What we have done with our Frontiers for Proposals funding call is changed the approach slightly. If we get a number of proposals with the same score, we fund the proposals from women first. We are tilting the playing field to level it because we know it’s already tilted against females.”

Diversity isn’t just about gender, of course. “There are many other groups we must consider including people of colour, those with disabilities, migrants, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and the LGBTQ+ community,” says Freeman.

“We need to consider these groups when we are designing research programmes and involve them in this journey. That will lead to better research and better solutions. That’s why we put societal champions on the research teams when we started doing challenge funding. It improves diversity of thinking and leads to better outcomes when you have people from different backgrounds and communities bringing their views to the group.”