The gate-keeping of research funding in Europe involves, to a large extent, middle-aged male academics. Women are under-represented among gate-keepers and hence among those having leading positions in science and science policy

Gate-keeping and Gender Challenge in Science

10 min read

Science is a social institution and as such it is a social activity that involves norms. Robert Merton (1942) states in his seminal work on the normative structure of science that the institution of science has an ethos consisting of particular norms. According to Merton, norms such as Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness and Organised scepticism, distinguish science from other social activities. The prime concern of science as an institution is thus the advancement of knowledge, which is independent from the person that produces it and from attributes such as gender, race, ethnicity etc. In order for science to be productive, scientists should be assessed based on the criteria of excellent work. This is also the criteria for scientists to become members of the scientific community, gain status and advance within it. Scientists should therefore be assessed by peers and based on the quality of their research.

The Mertonian norms, described by John Ziman as the “legend of science”, have been called the “ideal of science” by critics, who underline that in reality science does not function in accordance with the Mertonian ideal. In 1974, based on studies of the Apollo expedition scientists, Mitroff therefore presented counter-norms to Mertonian norms: Particularism, Individualism, Interestedness and Organised dogmatism.

It is evident that both norms and counter-norms pertain to scientific activity. The question is “to what extent norms and counter-norms are institutionalised”, in other words “to what extent they are connected to the reward system in science” i.e. the peer reviewing, the publishing, the funding, the advancement etc.

One of the most important functions of scientific activity is gate-keeping practised by peers, determining who is allowed into a particular scientific community. Gate-keepers define what good science is, establishing criteria and standards, evaluating merits and advancing scientific excellence.

The concept of gate-keeping was introduced into social sciences by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1943). Merton (1973) called the gate-keeper the “fourth major role” of a scientist, in addition to that of a researcher, teacher and administrator. Gate-keeping processes influence or control the access to a particular scientific field, allocation of resources and information flows, content and development of a field, and external image of a field. Gate-keeping implies first and foremost control and steering of the assessment and selection practice but it is also a facilitating process providing reviews, funding and support and hence giving opportunities.

The concepts of the Matthew effect (to those who have, more will be given, while to those who have less, even that will be taken away) (Merton 1968) and the “self-reinforcing elite structure” (Mulkay 1977) in science are well-known. Academic gate-keeping takes place in relation to policy decisions, agenda setting, appointments and creation of academic posts, funding decisions, award decisions, and publishing. Gate-keeping occurs at all levels; research group, department, faculty, university, research council and at national as well as supranational level and within scientific networks (Barzilai-Nahon 2009).

The gate-keeping of research funding in Europe involves, to a large extent, middle-aged male academics (ETAN 2000). Women are under-represented among gate-keepers and hence among those having leading positions in science and science policy (Husu 2004). In addition, it is well-known that fewer women apply for and achieve funding than men and when they submit applications, they apply for smaller amount of funds. In a study conducted in Denmark (Langberg 2006), female researchers in the public sector, regardless of age and organisation, reported that they had less resources and less influence on the scientific agenda and the research environment than their male colleagues.

Because access to resources is a major key to success in science, a number of actions aiming at promoting gender equality are implemented by many funding organizations, ranging from setting targets for the share of women funded, to specific programmes targeting young female researchers and supporting mobility.

If we focus on the European Framework Programmes, the latest figures show that only 25 percent of the participants in FP7 are women, despite targeted efforts by the European Commission to mobilise the female potential and increase the number of women panellists in the evaluations of FP project proposals (35 percent). This demonstrates the complexity of the problem. The growing numbers of female researchers in committees and panels do not automatically imply increased numbers of women applicants and grant receivers.

Women in scientific research remain a minority; only 30 percent of researchers in the EU-27 are women. However their proportion is growing faster than that of male researchers but not in a pace that indicates that the gender imbalance in science is self correcting.

There is nonetheless a growing interest in gender issues in the field of science policy and some progress, although modest, has been noticed throughout Europe during the last 10 years. Only in countries with a proactive policy in supporting women’s advancement (mainly some Nordic countries) can women be seen to constitute more than 40 percent of gate-keepers on scientific boards. With an increasing focus on the issue, some international, national, and private research funding organisations require gender analysis when applying for funds (1). Grantees are asked to address how their projects will promote: (i) equal representation of men and women in employment, decision-making, and as clinical research subjects, (ii) removing institutional barriers (2) to gender equality, (iii) employing sex and gender analysis as a resource to create new knowledge and technologies.

As women do not have a strong position in the distribution of power in science policy, their influence on the research agenda is limited: The scarcity of women in senior positions in science inevitably means that their individual and collective opinions are less likely to be voiced in policy- and decision making processes.” (She Figures 2003: 73). This further implies that the contribution of women in regards to shaping the science agenda is also limited. Women constitute only 13 percent of the European institutions leadership (rectors/directors) in the higher education sector and 9 percent at universities. On average in the EU only 22 percent of members in top scientific decision-making committees are women. The most important institutions in the scientific landscape are thus dominated by men.

Overall, gate-keeping is exercised both in the processand the content of decision-making, thus affecting the development and substance of academic fields. In this connection the role of evaluation and assessments is crucial. Evaluation is an important element in scientific activity but it is also a social activity and as such it is influenced by conceptual, normative, cultural and institutional settings. Evaluations do not take place in a vacuum but are carried out within complex frameworks. As a result, evaluation has its boundaries in what is practiced and what is known and understood within the scientific community. Gate-keeping and assessments can thus favour some research questions and fields and be instrumental not only in relation to the definition of scientific excellence but also to the construction of scientific knowledge.

Evidence suggests that women prefer and have a tendency to work within interdisciplinary fields while many assessments are deeply rooted in mono-disciplinary approaches, reproducing distinct disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinary fields are not in the core of scientific communities, and hence not well-organised and visible in relation to research councils and other research funding organisations. In addition, while interdisciplinarity is part of the scientific discourse and encouraged, the publishing system operates at the disciplinary level. Furthermore, publications of interdisciplinary character in high impact mono-disciplinary journals is often not acknowledged or recognized.

The central issue is therefore whether achievements of male and female scientists are evaluated on the same basis. Research on this issue has shown new insight to the gender of careers and to gendered patters in science, starting with the pioneering work of Wennerås and Wold (1997) on sexism and nepotism in the peer review of research grant applications to Sweden’s Medical Research Council, published in Nature. The article revealed that, while the quality of the research proposal was an important parameter in assessing the scientific competence of grant applicants, so was the gender of the applicant, as well as his/her affiliation with one or more members of the evaluation committee. The peer review system was hence not neutral as expected to be.

Nowadays, a number of journals, including Nature, the Lancet, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, have editorial policies requiring authors to state the sex of subjects studied and/or to perform sex and gender analysis.

Concerns have been expressed that the gate-keeping system is not only unsatisfactory; it might even be hampering women’s careers. Qualifications and talent are not sufficient conditions to become a successful scientist. Resources, time, support and professional networking are necessary preconditions. These are though disproportionately distributed between male and female scientists.

Universities are exceptionally gendered institutions. In many countries the higher the status of a university, the higher is the share of male scientists. While the share of female scientists among the PhD graduates, at post-doctoral level and among contract researchers is almost the same as among male scientists, the picture is completely different at the higher academic positions. There is an average of only 18 percent women at the professorial level in the EU-27, while women represent 36 percent of grade B and 44 percent of grade C academic staff. Many scientific areas, especially within science and technology, remain at the highest levels - particularly the professorial levels - almost exclusively male. In the EU-27, 45 percent of all PhD graduates in 2006 were women; they equal or outnumber men in all scientific fields, except for science, mathematics and computing (41 percent), and engineering, manufacturing and construction (25 percent) (3).

Male scientists dominate other institutions as well such as editorial boards, peer panels, and selection committees for professorships. Recruitment to these boards and committees is in many cases informal and not transparent, reproducing the established power system of science. All-male committees and evaluation panels are still common in many countries, even in those where the share of female researchers is high.

On the whole, several aspects of gender bias in the production and evaluation of scientific excellence have been in the center of the debate (cf. European Commission 2004). Hence, such bias take place in the (i) characterisation of scientific excellence, (ii) choice of the explicit and implicit indicators used for the definition of scientific excellence, (iii) criteria used to assess scientific production, (iv) way the criteria are applied to male and female scientists, (v) procedures through which criteria are applied and (vi) failure to integrate women in scientific networks.

Wrapping up, female scientists are having difficulty establishing research careers and are under-represented in research decision-making in Europe. Women have thus fewer opportunities to influence the research agenda and contribute to solving the grand challenges contemporary societies face. Underrepresentation of women in science is a great waste of talent and resources. Further research is needed to explore the effects of male-dominated gate-keeping on the research community and outcome, understand the dynamics and reasons behind female under-representation and gender bias and elaborate strategies to address these issues.



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(2) One example of such actions implemented in European research institutions is the FP7 funded project STAGES-Structural Transformation to Achieve Gender Equality in Science, see http://www.retepariopportunita.it/defaultdesktop.aspx?page=3937

(3) She Figures 2009