Sexism, peer review and research funding

In case you missed this, there was a brilliant – though depressing – article in the Guardian earlier this month about the massive gender disparities in academic research funding.

Written by an ‘anonymous academic’, the piece discusses the impact of gender bias in the peer review process of grant applications on the career paths of female academics.  As the writer states, evidence from Sweden suggests that female applicants are judged considerably more harshly in the peer review process than their male counterparts. These problems exceed the grant awarding process – they are also present in academic publishing:

‘The heart of the problem seems to be the perceived competence of men, and the fact that women often have to work much harder to be seen as competent. This is also evident in peer review for journal publications. We know that when double-blind peer reviewing was introduced for academic journals, there was a significant increase in female-first-authored papers – a difference of 7.9% of female-first-authored papers, and a 33% increase in the representation of female authors more broadly.’

Furthermore, the Guardian article refers to the ‘friendship bonus’ and forms of nepotism at play within the peer review process.  This echoes excellent research by Kelly Coate which explored the gendered hierarchies of ‘esteem indicators’ operating within academia.  Kelly’s research with academics shows how male academics rate their work of  higher quality than women. Furthermore, data from their project shows how male and female staff are differentially positioned and read in relation to the position of the ‘star academic’ or ‘leading scholar’. As one participant in their study stated:

‘There is a prevailing attitude that women are the worker bees and men are the shining academic stars. The work than women do in this university needs to be recognised‘.

The gendered dualisms between mind/ body that inform who can occupy such positions, and the invisibility of women’s labour in the academy – the doing of pastoral and administrative work that is deemed outside of and less than scholarly activities – need to be challenged.

Returning to the issue of peer review and research funding, with applications for academic promotion judged on academic publications and research funding, these inequities have massive implications for female academics’ chances of promotion and career development. No doubt these processes contribute to the huge disparities in the number of male and female professors in higher education where only a dismal 22% of professors in the UK are women.



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