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fact sheet
19 January 2021

Research grants: a stepping stone for women in their scientific career?

Only 24.4% of Dutch professors are female. With this the Netherlands lags behind internationally. One possible stepping stone towards more senior positions in science is receiving a research grant. When there is gender bias in the allocation of research grants, this can contribute to gender bias in scientific career paths. Our analysis of the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme, a grant programme for talented young scholars in the Netherlands, has shown that there is no gender bias in grant allocations. However, in comparison to men, female scholars apply less often for a research grant.

In 2017, together with almost 200 other countries, the Netherlands has endorsed the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers. An important part of this recommendation is that women have to be actively encouraged to consider careers in sciences in order to remediate past inequalities and patterns of exclusion.

In the policy discussion about gender differences in sciences, the first career stages and the decisive role of research grants therein is increasingly mentioned. Specific policy in the form of diversity instruction for selection committees aims to prevent gender bias in the assessment of grant applications. Here, we present the results of our analyses that show that these differences are elsewhere in the system than in the assessment of grants.

Share of female professors in the Netherlands increases but lags behind internationally

In 2019, the share of female professors was 24.4%. This is more than double compared to 2003, when the share of female professors was only 9%.

Despite this growth, the Netherlands still lags behind internationally. The most recent comparison on an international level is from 2016. During that year, the Netherlands had 18.7% female professors, well below the EU28-average of 23.7% female professors.

The importance of talent grants for academic career development

A common first step towards professorship is the doctorate degree. In the Netherlands, the share of female doctorate holders is currently just below 50%.

Despite an almost equal share of female doctorate holders in the Netherlands, we still see that the share of female professors lags behind. On the one hand, this can be caused by the time factor (see our factsheet "Women in academia"), but this is probably not the only reason why the Netherlands are lagging behind in their share of female professors. One important step in a scientifc career path is receiving research grants. These allow researchers to build a successful research programme and research group and thereby form an important stepping stone towards professorship.

Our analysis of the career development of recipients of a talent grant through the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme, an individual grant programme for talented young scholars in the Netherlands, shows that grants contribute to career development. As the figure below displays, at the end of the grant period, recipients of the VENI grant are more often assistant professor or associate professor. Recipients of a VIDI or VICI grant are more often professor at the end of the grant period.

Gender differences especially noticeable in grant applications

Differences in grant award chances between men and women can contribute to gender differences in the scientific career paths of scholars. Therefore, we investigated the average grant award chances of female scholars. We specifically looked at grant awards within the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. To counteract gender bias within this scheme, in recent years, investments have been made in instructions about diversity and equal gender distributions within selection committees. Additionally women receive a 1.5 year extension per child and there are arrangements to facilitate women to be able to take part in the application process during the period of pregnancy and pregnancy-leave.

The first grant one can apply for within the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme is the VENI. This grant can be applied for in the first three years after gaining a PhD and has a maximum value of € 250,000. With this grant, young scholars can start their own research programme. After the VENI, the next grant that can be applied for is the VIDI, which has a maximum value of €800,000. One can apply for this grant until eight years after gaining a PhD. With the VIDI grant the researcher's own research programme can be developed further and a research group can be formed. The last grant within this scheme is the VICI, which has a maximum value of €1,5 million. This grant is for senior scholars and can be applied for until 15 years after gaining a PhD. With this grant the researcher's own research programme and research group can be developed further.

For the period 2004-2018, we have summarized the number of male and female grant applications and awards for the three different grants. Our analyses of these data show that on average women and men have the same chance of getting a grant application awarded. This is indicated in the graphs below by the continuous proximity of the grey and red lines. Over the entire period 2004-2018, the success rate for the VENI was 16.9% for women and 17.7% for men. This is contrary to an earlier study which focused on VENI applications during the period 2010-2012. That study showed that women were less likely to be awarded a VENI compared to men (Van der Lee & Ellemers, 2015). However, when we examine the entire period 2004-2018, there are no significant differences in success rates between women and men. For the VIDI grant, the success rates were 20.1% for women and 19.1% for men, and for the VICI grant both women and men had a success rate of 16%. However, for all three grants women apply less often compared to men. As can be seen in the figure below, the share of women that apply (red line) is below the share of women that may potentially apply (yellow line). We see this effect for all three grants, but the effects is most pronounced for the VIDI and VICI applications.

applications and awards
Note: for 2011 the gender distribution for the Vidi applications and awards is not available. The results from the 2011 round were announced in 2012. The date for the Vidi round shifted that year and therefore the numbers were reported in the 2012 annual report.

Bron: NWO annual report en website en CBS Statline

Gender differences noticeable in grant award chances per domain

The analyses described above are across all scientific fields. However, question is whether these effects might differ between domains. Do women have better success rates in some domains? To analyze this, we have examined the VENI applications and awards for the period 2012-2018, for which data per domain are available. These analyses show that there is a difference between domains. Within the science domain, women have a higher success rate compared to men. Within the medical domain however, men have a higher success rate compared to women. For the other domains there are no differences in success rates for men and women. The domain specific analyses could not be performed for the VIDI and VICI grants, because of the small quantities per domain.

In conclusion

The analyses of potential gender differences in grant awards in this factsheet follow a quantitative approach in which it is assumed that there are no significant quality differences between the grant applications of men and women. The conclusion that there are no gender differences in grant awards between men and women is therefore valid in the situation that there are no quality differences in the applications. One study of gender differences in European (ERC) grant awards shows that even when women have a higher success rate compared to men, gender bias can still be present when corrected for quality differences in grant applications (Van den Besselaar et al., 2018). Women could have written a higher number of high quality applications and still not have a higher success rate. The risk of gender bias is especially high when the quality of the researcher instead of the quality of the application is judged (Witteman et al., 2019).

Our analyses show that there are no gender differences in grant awards within the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. However, we do see that women decide to apply less often for a talent grant compared to men. Given the importance of these talent grants for career development, women could be given more incentive to apply for these grants, while also taking into account the already high application pressure. Besides research grants there are of course more routes to encourage female scholars to apply for higher positions in academia, such as appreciation and rewards for other merits. Therefore, it remains important to also focus on other merits. The current policy to provide diversity instruction to selection committees seems to work, but more policy measures are needed to encourage women to reach the position of professor.

About the data and methods

Data about gender differences in grant applications and awards are collected from the NWO annual reports and website. Information about the gender distribution in doctorate holders is collected from CBS Statline. To test whether there were significant gender differences in grant applications and awards chi-square tests were performed.

Information about the gender distributions in doctorate holders only covers doctorates obtained in the Netherlands. The Innovational Research Incentives Scheme is open to scholars from Netherlands and abroad. Therefore, there will also be applications from scholars who did not obtain their doctorate in the Netherlands. When there are proportionally more men or women who did not obtain their doctorate in the Netherlands applying for a grant, this could influence our conclusions.



CBS Statline

NWO annual reports and website

European Commission, She Figures, 2018

UNESCO, Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers 2017

Van den Besselaar, P. et al. (2018). Explaining gender bias in ERC grant selection – Life Sciences case. STI 2018 Conference Proceedings.

Van der Lee, R., & Ellemers, N. (2015). Honoreringskansen voor mannen en vrouwen in de NWO-competitie. Onderzoeksrapport.

VSNU / WOPI data

Witteman, H.O. et al. (2019). Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency. Lancet, 393, 531-540.