Race — Not Gender — Influences Whether Top Medical Researchers Get Funding, Study Says

A controversial new study argues against the long-held idea of the “double bind” for women of color in science.

Race, but not gender, seems to influence whether an established scientist will win a coveted National Institutes of Health grant, a new study suggests.

Looking at certain high-level NIH grants given between 2000 and 2006, the study found that women were not at a disadvantage over men. Being a person of color, however, did lower an applicant’s chances.

The study is surprising because of the large number of reports arguing that women of color in science are in a “double bind” — meaning that they are at a significant disadvantage because of both their sex and race.

“If you see a difference in funding for women of color, it’s a race effect, not the double bind of race combined with gender,” Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas who led the study, told BuzzFeed News. “That to me says that focusing on the issues associated with race, in this case with women of color, would do more to address this gap than focusing on gender.”

However, other researchers caution that these findings may only be valid for a relatively small group of researchers: those who have advanced far enough in their careers to qualify for the NIH’s prestigious “Type 1 R01” grants, which support new research projects and are a hallmark of established researchers.

“I think that the problem is that, in this particular case, the idea of the double bind is being too narrowly constructed,” Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told BuzzFeed News. “This is a highly selected group. So you can’t say that there’s not a gendered dimension to this whole discussion, because the women aren’t even here.”

In 1976, Malcom, then a 30-year-old ecologist, co-authored the now canonical report The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. “Most of us experienced strong negative influences associated with race or ethnicity as children and teenagers but felt more strongly the handicaps for women as we moved into post-college training in graduate schools or later in careers," Malcom and her co-authors wrote.

In 1973, they pointed out, women of color made up just 0.5% of all PhD scientists and engineers. By 2008, that had grown to 6%. But even wider disparities remain at the higher levels of academia. In 2013, women made up just 24% of full professors, while women of color made up about 4%.

The research on how gender and race affect science funding is complex.

One 2005 study found that women receive significantly fewer grant dollars from NIH than men do (though it did not account for the fact that men also apply in far greater numbers). Another study found that women were far more likely to drop out of the applicant pool in the transition from early-career researcher to the R01 level.

“The research shows that men get more money, but the amount of money is really complicated to study,” Ginther said. “Men tend to have larger labs, and I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg.”

Studies have also found that the type of award seems to matter. For example, women are more likely than men to win teaching and service awards from their professional societies, Heather Metcalf, director of research and analysis for the Association for Women in Science, told BuzzFeed News. And men are eight times more likely to win the research and scholarly awards, she said.

In 2011, Ginther looked at racial disparities specifically in NIH R01 grants. That analysis showed that — even after accounting for education and training, publication record, and previous research experience — black applicants were 10% less likely to receive NIH grants than their white counterparts.

In her new study, Ginther repeated this approach but looked at race and gender together. She showed that overall, applications from Asians and black people were significantly less likely to receive NIH funding than those from white people, regardless of their gender or level of training.

Ginther doesn’t totally reject the double bind idea, and her study highlighted some cases where it seems to be particularly important. Black women MDs, for example, were less likely to get funding than their male counterparts, and black women PhDs were much more likely to have submitted a grant, gotten rejected, and never applied again.

“After getting that initial signal, they sort of walk away,” Ginther said. It’s unclear why exactly that happens, and that’s a problem, she added.

Metcalf applauds the new study for looking at race as a factor in funding — something most previous studies, including her own organization’s, have not.

But Malcom worries that narrowly focusing on elite grants could ultimately harm women of color in science.

“When you take too narrow a view of what the double bind is and how it operates, then you can be led to believe we don’t have a gendered problem,” she said. “You’re not even comparing apples to apples.”


Shirley Malcom's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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