You Go Girl!


Right now we’re celebrating Women’s History month. I recently was the keynote speaker at NIH’s observation of the month and was able to chat about my own scientific career and discuss research administration as a career choice. I was delighted to be asked to speak, as it made me reflect on how I came to be the head of extramural research at NIH through an unusual and circuitous route and to think about and celebrate the women who blazed the scientific trail to bring us where we are today. Thus, I thought I’d take this opportunity to provide you with some information from my talk regarding the participation of women in NIH extramural programs. These and other data on the topic are posted on the Web in the NIH Databook.

Because female scientists are vital to the biomedical and behavioral research enterprise, we continuously monitor the involvement of women at every stage in their interaction with our programs. For example, we know that women are at parity with men in all of our graduate and postdoctoral training programs. Female participants are nearly equal to males in our mentored career development programs.

Research Career Development Award Recipients and Kirschstein-NRSA Trainees and Fellows

Representation by Women by Activity and Career Stage

Graph showing that number of male and female awardees is about equallegend for the graph above 

When we look at research project grants, however, women are making steady gains, but they currently constitute only 27 percent of all the principal investigators (PI) on research project grants.

Graph showing that 27% of research project grants go to women

When  we look at success rates for men and women who apply for R01-equivalent applications we find that success rates are comparable for new (Type 1) projects but men have a slight edge over women on renewal (Type 2) applications. The comparable success on Type 1 applications would suggest that there is parity in the overall process. The difference at the renewal level is something we need to explore further.

Graph showing success rates are comparable for new (Type 1) projects but men have a slight edge over women on renewal (Type 2) applications

Even though success on research grants is approximately equal for men and women, we still often see a large reduction in the proportion of women External Web Site Policy that migrate into faculty positions that typically allow them to apply for NIH grants.

Like Ceci and Williams, who just published a paper entitled “Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science,” External Web Site Policy I believe that this could be largely due to life choices. Noting these choices, in combination with the data I described above, further highlights the relevance of NIH taking steps to make participation in NIH programs friendlier to those with family responsibilities—a topic on which I have previously blogged

There will be much more to come as we continue to explore the data and trends for shaping the future biomedical workforce.


  1. I very much appreciate the efforts that the NIH has made to to examine its own practices and to ensure gender fairness in the review process. Across the NIH as a whole, everything seems to be ok. However, I’m curious to know whether anyone has examined success rates (gender related, etc) for grant applications reviewed by specific study sections. Would transparency in study sections be useful for this?

  2. You could start by breaking down the type 2s by the total project duration. If the difference is present at -06 this would be very worrisome indeed. An effect driven by the -16, -21 apps would be less than good but perhaps would mean it is wrapped up in generational issues.

    What can you tell us about women’s success on the big mechanisms, Program Projects and Centers, in the PD role? And U-mechs?

  3. anon raises an excellent point. Just picking two recent issues, the fate of newer investigator apps and the queuing of apps into revision hell, if SROs were habitually provided with ongoing outcome trends for their sections they might notice things a heck of a lot sooner.

    I raised the issue of A2 / revision obsession my very first study section and the more experienced reviewers and the SRO could barely even understand what I was talking about. It was as if nobody had ever noticed that which was so painfully apparent to the n00bs….you had to get in line. And that this had very little to do with substantive improvement in the proposal or, more importantly, so much as a *change* in the ensuing science (should the app be funded).

  4. Are women also getting 27% of the research dollars, or are the 27% women PIs asking for and getting less funding?

  5. If you look simply at R01-equivalent grants, the average total cost is essentially the same, with women even receiving slightly larger awards. However, extending that to additional types of awards, you can see there are large differences in the average total cost for some mechanisms, which causes the total average size of awards received by women to be significantly less than those received by men.

    1. Concur with JR, thanks to Dr. Rockey for addressing the representation of women where it counts, OER funded grants! (I jest….a little)

      At any rate, I think I was remembering the data of the type you linked, i.e., showing that women are less likely to be the PDs of the exceptionally large mechanisms. (I’m not sure, but assume “Other” refers to Program Projects and U-mechs? plus contracts?) In one sense this may be an overrepresentation if PDs of large Centers are getting scored with all the $$, even that devoted to component PIs? but it also points to a need for further investigation into the data. Are equivalently senior and accomplished women being disadvantaged as PDs of Centers? Are they simply less likely (relative to R-mechs) to submit applications for Centers? Is it an age/generational factor (a lot of the Center PDs I know are pretty old….).

      1. Regarding further analyses about women and NIH grants, we have looked at the data. These will be part of a soon-to-be released paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Once it is published, I’ll blog about it so we can continue the conversation.

        1. Hi Dr. Rockey, I am just reading your comment here, a few years later. Did you ever publish these findings? Thank you.

          1. These findings were published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Academic Medicine. The paper is titled “Sex Differences in Application, Success, and Funding Rates for NIH Extramural Programs”.

  6. Thanks for publishing this research. I would like to point out though, that when you speculate that the reduction in the proportion of women that migrate into faculty positions is due to “life choices,” you make it seem as though the women ‘choosing’ to leave their careers have the same advantages and challenges as the men in their field. While things are getting better for women, they still face many challenges that males are privileged enough to not have to experience, and this could be a factor in their career ‘choice.’

    1. I heartily agree with the above comment. Women are not willingly making life choices that result in exclusion from science. They are being forced to decide between their personal values and career goals. If there was more institutional support for child care, flexible schedules, and maternity leave (at every stage, not just for tenured faculty), as well as personal support from the partners of female scientists, few such “choices” would be made.

  7. I would also be interested in seeing the proportion of women with families as compared to men. The injustices are still profound, at least in my experience. There are absolutely no mechanisms in place to protect women when they are in these most vulnerable years of raising young children. Women are also less effective at the gamesmanship of this career, we feel like we deserve less, even if the facts do not substantiate this conclusion. When my male colleagues got a promotion, before they slipped into the possible (and nowadays unfortunately common) troubles of having to renew their grant, I received an extension (“thanks” to the children…), which I should never have accepted, because actually, at the time, I had a good track record of funding, and maybe one or two less papers, but invited talks and enough to justify my promotion from an Assistant Professor level. One reviewer on my last NIH grant even pointed this out and gave me a lesser score under “investigator” because of it. I am told now that I should have stood up for myself. It leaves me disillusioned, and I am also sad to observe our most brilliant students, particularly the women, telling me “I do not want your life” and turning their back on this career, a profession that I still love. I feel I fail them by not showing them it is feasible. I am afraid we still have a long way to go…

  8. At my institution, women faculty are advised to move off the tenure track and choose an “easier” career path far more often than men. I resisted these requests for 6 years, and am now a tenured faculty member with NIH funding. Be careful when you assume that women are “choosing” to make different life choices. I think sometimes it is chosen for them, because of ongoing bias.

  9. I have three questions about the R01 success rates for women
    1. How does the success rate for initial funding of an R01 break down between new investigators and established investigators? In other words, is gender parity for initial funding different for women getting the new investigators “break”? Or is parity also seen for an established woman investigator applying for a new R01?
    2. What is an R01 equivalent? Since the gold standard for promotion (and academic prestige) is a “real” R01, what does the gender success data look like for R01 funding?
    3. Is there data regarding how many woman investigators were funded at the A0 vs. A1 vs. A2 in comparison to men ? What has happened to success rates of women with the loss of the A2?

    Since the main persisting gender bias manifests in “benefit of the doubt” (according to many studies in many fields), my concern about eliminating the A2 is that it will specifically disadvantage women who have “more to prove” and need an extra submission to do so. This may be more apparent when women attempt to renew projects. There may be more gender equivalency in the height of the bar for new investigators, but the benefit of the doubt deficit for women may kick back in with established investigators going for new grants or for renewal of a funded grant.

  10. Regarding family issues, I was informed that I could not get an extension on the 5 year application limit for the K99 grant for having children unless I had taken a leave of absence. Even then, I could only get an extension for the same amount of time as the leave of absence. Most women postdocs (myself included) do not take take a leave of absence for having children since they still work in some capacity during “maternity leave.” Women assistant professors are allowed a year extension on their tenure clock (whether they decide to take this or not) and I feel there should be some mechanism to allow an extension if needed for this grant which is one of the only career-transition grants for PhDs. An option for extension could benefit anyone, male or female, that finds themselves in extenuating circumstances.

    1. That is SUCH an important issue, HCL–because one of the biggest holes in the STEM pipeline is before women even get put up for tenure, i.e. the stage at which we are both having children and trying to get faculty jobs. The K99/R00 has the potential to be a major gap-filler… IF things like this get sorted out which it sounds like they clearly have not been.

      I am so sorry that you were denied that chance, and I think whoever made that decision for you has a lot to answer for.

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