EPSRC Survey Explores Underrepresentation of Women in Grant Proposals

The survey is part of a response to a September 2020 report exploring the gender disparity across the EPSRC grants portfolio.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has published the findings of a survey addressing the under-representation of women in engineering and the physical sciences, while setting out plans to address this imbalance in the future.

The survey is a response to a September 2020 EPSRC report into gender disparity across its grants portfolio, and particularly for large grants, defined as those in excess of £10 million. The report aimed to promote discussion in the community to support changes across the sector, and revealed the following:

  • Women are consistently under-represented in EPSRC’s principal investigator (PI) applicant pool across EPSRC’s portfolio.
  • Application numbers from women for large grants are particularly low.
  • While award rates by number of grants are similar for men and women, they are not by value of grants.
  • There are notable differences in the size of grants applied for across genders, with women consistently applying for smaller grants.

As part of the report’s next steps, the EPSRC conducted a ‘have your say’ campaign to better understand these trends and obtain first-hand perspectives of what may be driving them. A total of 361 researchers responded to the call, most of whom were at the mid and senior career stage. Nearly two thirds of the respondents had experience of either applying to be a PI or being a current or past PI on an EPSRC grant.

A majority of survey responses listed institutional barriers and a culture that favours men or more established researchers as reasons for the low number of applications for larger grants from women. A clear majority of respondents also agreed that when applying for a large grant compared to men, women are disproportionately affected by barriers such as time, bias in peer review, and limited access to networks and opportunities for support.

A number of recommendations regarding interventions were made through the survey. From these, EPSRC have detailed a set of actions, including:

  • Trialling different modes of application within specific funding opportunities.
  • Trialling unconscious bias observers in its funding panels.
  • Exploring how universities ensure diversity and fairness in their pre-selection processes for applications to EPSRC and other awarding processes.
  • Sharing good practice across higher education institutions.

EPSRC will develop these and include further detail on implementation in its forthcoming equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) action plan, to be published later in 2022.

EPSRC Deputy-Director for EDI and People, Dr Alison Wall said:

“EPSRC has an important role to play in effecting change across engineering and the physical sciences, for that change to be lasting and comprehensive it requires the involvement of the entire sector.

“That’s why it was so important to capture and share the contributions of our community through this report, which will inform our ongoing work. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate.

“We will now determine how best to implement the wide-ranging recommendations made in the report. These actions will form part of our EDI action plan to be published later this year.”

The report can be accessed in full on the EPSRC website.

(This report was the subject of a ResearchConnect Newsflash.)