A word on women in health and medical research – from the NHMRC

The predicament of women in science is documented well throughout the Women in Science AUSTRALIA blog, and in health and medical research specifically the story is the same as you have no doubt read time and time again: women outnumber men at bachelor levels, in PhDs and in postdoctoral fellowships, and yet the number of women in senior research positions is disproportionately low. The problem isn’t getting women in the door; it’s keeping them in the room.

But while the problem is well understood, the same cannot be said for the solution.

Retaining women is an issue faced by research agencies around the world. In the US, the proportion of females applying for NIH funding compared to men decreases at advanced career stages, despite comparable success and funding rates. In the UK, only 14.5% of professor positions in science and technology are held by women.

Dr Saraid Billiards is the Director of the Research Grants team at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). She is responsible for several schemes including Project Grants with an annual budget of approximately $500 million. As Director, Saraid is responsible for ensuring that the peer review of all applications is of the highest international standard so that only the best research is funded. Saraid is also responsible for the NHMRC’s Women in Health Science Working Committee – established to identify barriers and enablers to the progression and retention of women in health and medical research – and is an active participant in the peer review of a number of other research support schemes. Saraid has a PhD in neurophysiology from The Monash University. After completing her PhD in 2003, Saraid worked for five years in the Department of Neuropathology at the Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. Her research focused on the underlying neuropathology of perinatal brain injury, in particular, cerebral palsy and stillbirth. Upon returning to Australia, Saraid continued her research at The University of Melbourne before taking up a position at the NHMRC.

You may ask – why am I, a staff member of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – a public servant! – writing about this? It is partially because I am one example of a woman with great ambitions who ended up leaving a promising career in health and medical research. But it is also because my role offers an opportunity to influence behaviours and policies regarding women in research.

At the NHMRC, I oversee a number of funding programs including Project Grants, Development Grants, Targeted Calls for Research and International Collaborations. I am also responsible for the Women in Health Science Working Committee which was established late in 2012. This committee, while in its infancy, has grand ambitions. The NHMRC and its Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Professor Warwick Anderson AM, are committed to addressing the issue of progression and retention of women in health and medical research in Australia and I am proud to be a part of this goal.

There is much we have already done. In 2010, the NHMRC introduced an allowance for career disruptions in grant applications, enabling women who have had children to have additional years considered as part of their research track record. And in 2013 we made part-time opportunities available for all NHMRC schemes. We also work to ensure balanced representation between men and women on peer review committees whenever possible, and publish funding outcomes by gender on our website each year.

But there are also more obscure things. For example, as the first part of our process to assess grant applications, researchers have their applications reviewed by external assessors. After this, the assessors’ comments are provided to the applicant and the researcher has 10 days to provide a rebuttal. At the NHMRC currently, we don’t release assessors’ comments after 2pm on any given day, noting that many women have caring duties beyond this and it would diminish their response time to provide rebuttals. We are also considering changing the closing dates of our schemes so they don’t coincide with school holidays, when women with children are most preoccupied. These may seem small, but they are simple things to do to make staying in research that little bit easier for women with children.

But while there are many things we would like to fix and should, we can’t do it alone, and nowhere is this more true than in our most recent initiative.

As you may be aware, Professor Anderson and I recently discussed the importance of institutions having policies and practices in place that promote gender equity and diversity. This video followed a request to all of our Administering Institutions to supply information on their gender equity practices so we could better understand how female researchers were being supported.

Of those that responded (only about half), the information received was varied. To better understand this variation, the institutions were assessed against 10 key criteria such as flexible working arrangements, parental/maternity leave, travel/childcare assistance and mentoring/skills training. Unfortunately, nearly 70% of institutions that responded were considered less than satisfactory or poor (i.e. they only provided information on five or fewer of the criteria).

This is quite simply, unacceptable. While we understand that some institutions may have misunderstood the significance of the request and may not have responded with all available information, we also received some unfortunate responses – one institution for example said that they were ‘too small’ to have a gender equity policy.

Although we provide the grants for medical research, the researchers themselves work for the institutions that employ them, not for us. If we want to see real change in how women are supported, it needs to happen in their work places, as well in the grant guidelines. As such, in the following months, we plan to consult with the sector before making adjustments to our Administering Institution policy coming into effect in 2015. These changes will ensure that institutions that receive NHMRC funding play their (very important) part in overcoming the underrepresentation of women.

Keeping talented women in research is not just a matter of equality for the sake of equality.

Many of the biggest issues in human health require creative solutions and entirely different ways of looking at problems. There are many health areas where there is still great human suffering and yet despite much research, we are not yet on top of them – consider obesity, depression, dementia, diabetes and stroke to name only a few. We need as many talented and enthusiastic brains working towards these solutions as possible. It is not that men and women innately think differently about problems, but that people think differently, and if bright women are no longer pursuing research, we are losing an immense capacity to make progress.

As health issues become more difficult to solve, we cannot afford to waste any Australian talent. Keeping women engaged in health and medical research is a sure step in the right direction to building a healthier nation.

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