Who gets grant money? The (gendered) words decide

A report from Meredith Somers on a paper by Julian Kolev, Yuly Fuentes-Medel, and Fiona Murray.

The top level analysis from the paper suggests:

Female scientists are 16% less likely than men to get a high score on their grant proposal due to word choice. That needs to change.

The researchers gathered data from nearly 6,800 grant proposals submitted by U.S.-based applicants to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation between 2008 & 2017.

The researchers examined the top 1,000 most frequently used words in the grant proposal dataset. This included words like new, HIV, using, and cell.

According to the researchers, women used “narrower” words that are “highly concentrated in a small number of topics.” Male applicants, on the other hand, tended to use “broad” words, which “appear at similar rates in all topic areas,” the study stated.

We find strong gender differences in the usage of broad and narrow words, suggesting that differing communication styles are a key driver of the gender score gap.

I’ll spend more time looking into the publication to look at the coding of the terms and use across proposals.

Also of note in the report:

  • Female applicants made up only one-third of the applicant pool.
  • Female applicants were roughly 30% less senior than their male counterparts.
  • Female applicants “are significantly less likely” to reapply after an initial rejection.

The Takeaway

Although this piece, and the related dataset focus on grant applications, this adds weight to the questions that exist about how anonymity works (or doesn’t work) in current peer review systems.

I’ve had questions about peer review (for publications, conference proposals, & grant applications) given that it’s easy to “Google It” and easily identify authors. Furthermore, I’m wondering about the specific terms used in proposals, and the unforeseen impact on the reviewer.

SOURCE: MIT Sloan Management School

Cover image credit

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