Women scientists are less likely to win funding for grants, even when they’re evaluated anonymously, according to a recent working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The apparent driving force: Women’s penchant for using “narrow” words in their grant proposals, versus men’s tendency toward “broad” words.
The researchers, who analyzed 6,794 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant proposals spanning a decade, also found that the text-based criteria that drove reviewers’ selections didn’t necessarily weed out weaker proposals. In fact, study co-author Julian Kolev told MarketWatch, “Grant awards that were based on broad language actually ended up, fairly often, underperforming the awards proposals that had narrower language.”
The Gates Foundation is known for its efforts to improve health in developing countries. It has a $50.7-billion endowment and is the largest private charity in the world.
“Broad” words were words that appeared across many different topic areas, Kolev said, while “narrow” words were ones that appeared predominantly in one or two topic areas.
For example, “bacteria,” “detection” and “control” were broad words that might appear in proposals on a range of topics, like malaria, reproductive and neonatal health, and tuberculosis. On the other hand, narrow words like “contraceptive,” “oral” and “brain” were more topic-specific.
Broad words, those used more commonly by men, can suggest that the impact or applicability of an idea is “perhaps larger than the actual content of the study,” Kolev said. Narrow, more technical language, meanwhile, focuses on the specific area of study without making claims about the study’s bigger implications.
Kolev suggested it was “just a natural inclination” for reviewers to gravitate to proposals with broader language. “I think most of us like big ideas, and we feel like when there’s a possibility for an idea to be more impactful across a larger space of topics or applications, that seems more attractive,” he said.
But, as the researchers found, the use of broad words in a proposal doesn’t necessarily translate to more successful research.
“The disappearance of disparities after being selected and receiving Gates Foundation funding suggests that from the perspective of impact, female applicants may well generate a greater ‘return’ on Gates Foundation resources,” the authors wrote.
The Gates Foundation, which asked researchers to examine its applications and provided the data used in the study, told MarketWatch in a statement that it was “committed to ensuring gender equality.” “[W]e are carefully reviewing the results of this study — as well as our own internal data — as part of our ongoing commitment to learning and evolving as an organization,” the foundation said.
Kolev, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University; neuroscientist Yuly Fuentes-Medel; and Fiona Murray, the associate dean of innovation at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, studied a sample of anonymous proposals submitted to the Gates Foundation’s Global Challenges: Exploration (GCE) program by U.S.-based life-science researchers between 2008 and 2017.
Read the full post at MarketWatch.
Fiona Murray is the Associate Dean of Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, William Porter (1967) Professor of Entrepreneurship, and an associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is also the co-director of MIT’s Innovation Initiative.