Women in Biomedical Research


It has been a while since I’ve discussed the participation of women in research and NIH extramural programs, and following up on a recent workshop we held on the advancement of women in biomedical careers, I thought it would be a good time to revisit updated data and discuss issues concerning women in biomedical research.

To quickly recap what we discussed in prior blogs, we have seen that in most instances women do well in competition for NIH research funding. For R01-equivalent grants, success rates are almost identical for men and women on type 1 applications with small, but persistent, disparity in success for type 2 (competing renewals) and research project grants overall. When we look at the representation of women, we see in recent years that men and women are nearly equally represented percentage-wise in training and career development programs. However, looking at representation as principal investigators (PIs) on research grants overall, we see women constitute only about 30% of overall research project grant PIs, and only about 20% of NIH research center and small business research program PIs.

Another persistent trend is that far fewer women apply for NIH funding and it takes longer for them to return to apply for NIH funding. For example, a 2011 evaluation of NIH’s career development awards (Ks) found that of the K PIs tracked in the 10 years following their award, men applied for and received subsequent NIH grants at higher rates than women. But interestingly, among the K PIs tracked for more than 10 years, there were no differences between the rates at which men and women applied for or received NIH funding.

A specific issue that recently has recently created interesting conversations in the blogosphere is whether female K99/R00 awardees were less likely to receive a subsequent R01 award compared to male K99/R00 awardees. We at NIH have also found this particular outcome among K99/R00 PIs and have noted that those differences again stem from differential rates of application. Of the 2007 cohort of K99 PIs, 86 percent of the men had applied for R01s by 2013, but only 69 percent of the women had applied.

Another area of focus here at NIH is examining what contributes to, or hinders, the advancement of women in science and biomedical research careers. I encourage you to read Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health Dr. Janine Clayton’s blog about this issue. NIH has several initiatives for advancing women in science and research careers, and also actively studies why women migrate into faculty level research careers at lower rates than men.

In response to the National Academy of Sciences Report “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” NIH established a Women in Biomedical Careers Working Group that issued a request for applications to foster research on the causal factors and interventions that promote and support the careers of women in biomedical and behavioral science and engineering. This led to workshops in 2012 and in June 2014 (report forthcoming)concluding that we need a continued focus on advancing the careers of women in biomedical research, and that ultimately the problem must be owned and managed by all of us in the research community, as well as NIH.

Diversifying the biomedical workforce leads to the improved quality of the educational and training environment and a broadened perspective on research. I am encouraged more and more each day by the whirlwind of discussion and action in support of including women in science, not just around the nation, but also around the world. Diversity is so important to the NIH mission and the advancement of science, and I’m happy to continue to talk to you about what we at NIH are learning about women’s participation in our programs and other aspects of scientific workforce diversity.


  1. From my analysis, 92% of men and 89% of women with K99 awards transitions to R00 awards. You indicate that 86% of men from the K99 cohort had submitted an R01 application. This means that 86%/.92 = 93% of men with an R00 had submitted an R01 application. In contrast, 69% /.89 = 78% of women with an R00 had submitted. From my analysis, 57% of men with an R00 had achieved R01 funding. This indicates a funding rate of 57%/93% = 0.61. 42% of women with an R00 had achieved R01 funding and 42%/78% = 0.54. Thus, it appears that the funding rate for women is lower that it is for men even correcting for the rate of submitting at least one R01 application. Can you provide data about the per application success rate for men and women in this cohort?

  2. I think this is a very interesting and ever-timely discussion, and very close to me since I am a scientist with young children, who is a new investigator and trying to get an R01. As we know, this is harder than ever these days and my most recent grants are just under the payline (16-percentile, while current NHLBI payline is 12-percentile) and not likely to be funded.
    The thing that I am concerned about is this. I had tried to extend my ESI status and it was only extendable by the time of my 2 maternity leaves (very brief). All the time that I could work only part-time or per-diem for childcare issues could not be considered. I think this is is not really fair and does not also reflect real life. Are there any plans to review this policy which really is not fair to parents ? Thanks!

    1. The FAQ page on the Early Stage Investigator status describes what situations are eligible for an ESI extension consideration, and how to request an ESI extension — including guidance on how to factor in part-time status — if applicable. For example, “I worked part time for six months: 75% for two months; 25% for two months; 50% for 2 months. How should I calculate my request for an extension?” If your particular situation isn’t described on that page, you may contact NIH via the email address on that page.

      1. Yes, the FAQ describes it well and I proceeded along these lines but the table was not requested. From practical considerations, all the information should be looked at together, not requested subjectively at a later date. I believe that this small practical action would help many women scientists.

        1. When I requested an ESI extension, I asked for not only the time lost during maternity leave but also the shorter work hours after I returned to work. My request was granted without question. Perhaps you did not know that you could request this additional time.

          I think the ESI extension is a great way for the NIH to support young women scientists. I also asked for and was granted an extension for tenure review at my university. While on one hand it is hard for me to appear “weak” and ask for extra time, the truth of the matter is that many of us women scientists are also the primary caretaker at home. We deserve this extra time!

  3. One potential barrier for women PIs that I don’t see discussed much is the snowball effect of having a family friendly policy in the lab, which people may assume is more likely for female than male PIs (I’m not stating an opinion on whether or not this is true). Being a woman in science myself, I have tried to create a lab environment that broadly supportive, including women and under-represented minorities. There have been more babies born to trainees in my lab than in any other lab in my department, which represents quite a lot of maternity leave over the years. I want to continue to promote the success of women in science but worry that the disproportionate amount of maternity leave I’ve supported is affecting lab productivity, which is painful in the current climate. Over time, this may be a contributing factor to women applying less for R01s and may be funded at a lower rate (i.e., less prelim data, less productivity).

    1. I have debated this issue myself, and have heard first hand from colleagues who have weighed the potential productivity of graduate students with young children as a cost to their lab. One way to encourage women who are interested in having children to stay in science would be to provide a supplement to cover maternity leave for students and post docs who are paid from federally funded grants. That doesn’t completely solve the productivity concern in the first months of parenthood, but it would encourage PIs to support women if at least the financial burden is less.

      1. Great idea. One of my postdocs had 2 babies while in my lab when I was just getting going. That cost me money plus about 6-8 months of that person’s productivity! It worked out OK in the end and she’s doing well too, but it certainly added to my timeline! No credit for that kind of thing is given in P&T clock or “ESI” status for NIH.

  4. I am a K99/R00 recipient and I’ve been unsuccessful with garnering R01 funding, despite submitting two R01 applications following a major senior-author publication. Some study section reviewers comment on my K99/R00 status and insist that I should have more publications as a senior PI as a result of early-stage funding, and that, because I do not yet have multiple senior author papers (which is nearly impossible in the first 2 years of having your own lab if you work on animal models of disease in which experiments take 3-5 months each), I am not worthy of further NIH funding. I have a feeling that my R01 applications would’ve scored better if I was NOT a K99/R00 recipient. Of note, I submitted one of my R01 applications as an ACS Research Scholar Grant and I received far better reviews and a fundable score, and reviewers there saw my K99/R00 status as an asset rather than as a detriment.

    In speaking to my male colleagues with K99s/R00s, and they are not held to the same publication standard that some of my reviewers have held me to. We have compared reviewers’ comments and mine are definitely harser and more critical as regards my status as a K99/R00 recipient and expected productivity. I have spoken with my program officer about this, and she says that I all I can do is publish some more papers and resubmit a fresh R01 application to a different study section with the hope that I will get reviewers that are not so critical of my K99/R00 status. I somehow doubt that this will solve the problem, and I am exploring other funding options, like contact work for clinic trials or clinical diagnostics – maybe if I use my NIH-sponsorred expertise in fee-for-service research I will not have the same problems with bias.

    1. This has been my experience too (NIMH K99/R00). The setup of the K/R makes it extremely difficult to do productive research until the last 2 years, but reviewers expect that if you have one, it means you should have been publishing like crazy throughout. The majority of my K99 years were spent looking for a job and meeting my training goals, so I couldn’t get much research done, and it took the first R00 year to set up my lab (behavioral and genomic), so that’s almost 3 years of a data desert. Now I’m in my fourth year and finally starting to optimize procedures and produce mice, but that means that I still haven’t collected much data. Considering how long it takes to get an R01–even if it’s funded on the first or second try–I should be applying for one right now, but with what data? I have applied for other NIH grants, and I’ve noticed that, of the K/Rs I know, the men have a much better success rate with fewer comments about not having enough papers.

  5. It is now permissible to note on your Biosketch whether you have had children during a training period, but in practice I have heard from seasoned colleagues they have never seen it when on study section. Therefore, I don’t do this, and I wonder if that is the right move.

  6. Another comment regarding being a female K99/R00 recipient – since accepting my position I have learned that my start-up package was not as good as what another K99/R00-funded young PI in my department received. In my negotiations for positions, department chairs often ‘counted’ my R00 as part of my start-up package, and included projected R00 funds in budget proposals for my packages. However, some of the male K99/R00 recipients I know did not have that happen to them – their R00 grants were counted as a bonus and their offers were designed to attract them to the institution rather than to take advantage of their funding. Has NIH compared start-up packages accepted by male and female K99/R00 recipients? Maybe part of the reasons that first-R01 success rates differ between male and female K99/R00 recipients is that start-up packages substantially differ by gender, and this affects early-stage productivity.

    1. I have also seen 2 male colleagues with K99/R00s get the criticism re: publications and productivity, so I doubt it is a male/female issue. All of this is likely anecdotal.

      I for one question the utility of the K99/R00 anyway – especially at a time when the R01 success rates are so low because of lack of NIH $. In my experience, the majority of recipients seem to come from excellent postdoctoral labs and would likely get a job anyway. It’s often unclear what % of the application was written by the applicant vs the PI of the large lab that they came from (I’ve seen situations where the PI writes the majority of the proposal), so it’s difficult for reviewers to gauge the future promise of the postdoc. And, after being awarded, the K99 dollars are provided to a lab that is likely already well-funded by the NIH (that could certainly be quantitated by the NIH), and the R00 dollars overlap with what ought to be a generous start-up package from the hiring university. So, after 3-4 years as a faculty member, with the startup gone and the grant expired, the recipient could be broke if they didn’t get an R01 or other grant in those first couple of years. There are a lot of expectations, and rightfully so, on a K99/R00 recipient who just received a large sum of NIH money. I understand that the first couple of years as a PI is tough (I’m currently going through that), but isn’t it okay for the scientific community to expect publications and productivity from the ~$750,000+ dollars provided? If not, then why provide the R00 money??? Couldn’t that money be better served as R01 funding for someone?

  7. Two comments.
    1. I have had 6 babies born to students and postdocs in my lab over the last several years. I agree that the maternity time is a drag on productivity and I worry about renewal.

    2. In general women seem less risk averse than men. Soft money funded research jobs, in the current funding climate, are very stressful and not very secure. In recent years the vast majority of my students, men and women, have taken more secure jobs rather than academic positions. In fact, only male students have stayed in soft money research positions. I think that security and not wanting to go through what I go through was an issue in many of these decisions.

  8. I would like to see data on how much (and what kind of) mentoring is received by K/R00 recipients regarding R01 submissions broken down by gender. Likewise, how many of these recipients stay at the same institution as their postdoctoral mentor, thereby receiving well-tailored advice? In my own case, I wish someone had sat me down, emphasized the need to apply for an R01 immediately, and gone through my ideas with me as soon as I joined my new institution. I could have gotten in the game a lot sooner.

  9. From your data it appears that women take longer to apply and re-apply for R01’s than men do. This could be because, as some have suggested, that women take more hours out of the week to care for children than men do (on average). An additional possibility is that women may be more careful than men in putting together the best possible grant and preliminary data that they can before submitting. At a time when the community is concerned about reproducibility of results, this tendency should be applauded rather than discouraged. At any rate, if women are taking longer to apply and re-apply, then this “10 years an ESI” time limit must be hurting women disproportionately. I think “Early Stage” should be judged by career status, for example “Assistant Professor”, not by an arbitrary number of years.

  10. I’m not an new investigator but a scientist new to the biomedical research field and share some of the same problems discussed here. I’ve relied on literature to help with not just funding but all avenues of the competitive NIH research world and I would like to list some of the more helpful books. I agree that start up packages are very important. There is a great book called “Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want” that I recommend for women who are negotiating start up packages. To really understand the issues women with children face in academia along with practical solutions I recommend “Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia”. Finally, how we speak and write has such an enormous impact on how we are perceived. This book provides helpful insight and specific changes that are easy to implement: “How to Say It For Women: Communicating with Confidence and Power Using the Language of Success”. These books aren’t a cure all but they certainly helped me tremendously.

  11. Perhaps I have missed it, but has there ever been an analysis conducted that relates NIH funding for both women and men with the number and age of their children? One additional question about the nature of the family’s child care (spouse, extended family, nanny) would be enlightening. The prediction would be that individuals without children are most frequently funded, followed by those with a spouse, extended family, or a nanny to provide child care. At the bottom would be individuals without such support, with single parents comprising a small percentage of funded scientists. Wouldn’t it also be nice for a “credit” to be given for parent-scientists who grow children into STEM-centric students? I would be a three-time winner in this case!

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