Universities "must look deeper" into the drivers of inequality within research

Universities must seek a deeper understanding of the drivers of inequality in job roles and academic ranks if they are to achieve change.

Professor Axel Gandy (Chair in Statistics, Imperial College London), Dr Georg Hahn (Senior Research Associate in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Lancaster University) and Professor Nick Jennings (Vice Provost for Research at Imperial College London) have looked at possible inequalities relating to grant application success rates within Imperial over a five-year period.

In an article for Research Professional , they said: “Clearly, a key driver of inequality is career progression. Universities take a range of factors into account when promoting staff, but if one of these factors is biased this can result in unequal promotion, and often unequal pay, as a consequence”

The importance of grant income

Grant income is a factor in promotions at universities, they explain. UK research councils gather data on overall success rate by gender, age, disability status or ethnicity, but studies like this are susceptible to Simpson’s paradox - a phenomenon in probability and statistics where a trend that appears in several different groups of data disappears or reverses when these groups are combined.

For example: “More senior academic ranks tend to enjoy a higher success rate and these are the ranks containing a larger proportion of male academics,” they said.

The Imperial group looked at a data set covering more than 6,000 applications, and considered possible inequalities with respect to different criteria, specifically gender, academic rank and nationality, to get a rounded picture.

A complicated picture

“Overall success rates for male applicants were around 32.5 per cent versus 30 per cent for female applicants,” they said. But the underlying picture is more complicated. They saw a greater difference in success rates between women and men for applications to government-funded research councils, versus charities, for example. And the difference in success rates is almost non-existent for more senior academics, whereas it is more pronounced for lecturers and senior lecturers, they said.

The team applied statistical techniques to the raw data to check for significant differences. They found that the difference in success rates for lecturers and senior lecturers remained statistically significant, while the overall success rate between male and female applicants no longer was.

Further findings suggest that people with white ethnicity see higher success rates. Other characteristics such as nationality show raw differences, but there is not enough evidence in the available data to come to a firm conclusion.

Next steps

The team said: “While we have found statistically significant differences, this does not automatically imply that there is bias in the grant evaluation process. Other possible explanations are differences in the quality or the timeliness of the proposals, caused by making more frequent or less polished applications.”

“It is probably impossible to get a definite answer, but further research that includes data from other universities would help us to get a fuller picture, and allow universities to take action to eliminate the drivers of inequalities in academic careers.” Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.