A woman applying to the Norwegian Research Council’s program SAMKUL only has half the chance a man has of being supported.
36% of projects funded by the Norwegian Research Council last week are led by women. That’s great, you might be thinking. Sure, it’s a pity more women don’t apply, but 36% isn’t too bad.
What if I tell you that over half the applicants to this funding program were women? That’s not all: over half of the very best projects according to the external review panels were led by women. And yet only 4 of the 11 funded projects are led by women. What happened?
The program I’m talking about is SAMKUL: Cultural Conditions Underlying Societal Change. SAMKUL is one of the Research Council’s thematic programs. While the free programs award funding based on scientific quality alone, thematic programs are designed to encourage research on topics society needs, so the selection is based on relevance to the call in addition to the quality of the project. External review panels assess the quality, then the program committee prioritises the best projects according to their relevance to the call. In practice, the advisor at the Research Council told me, this means they consider all the applications that received the two best grades from the review panels, so all the 6s and 7s. This year, that group consisted of applications from 13 women and 12 men.
I was one of the many researchers whose application was rejected. Nothing unusual about that, I thought, until I read the assessment. Wow! I got the top grade, a 7! The reviewers loved my application! But the program committee thought my project “had too little focus on cultural conditions and this weakened the project’s relevance to the SAMKUL program”. That was the only reason I received for the rejection. Seven of us got the top grade. I was the only one of the seven not to be funded.
Oh well, maybe I messed up on relevance, I thought. Applying for research funding is like buying a lottery ticket, I’ll just try again next year, I thought. But then I started asking the advisor at the Research Council about the numbers behind the grants, and I started to see a bigger picture. It is not a pretty picture.
You see, this isn’t the only year SAMKUL has given fewer women than men grants.
The last call, in 2013, was even worse. That year, 53% of the applicants were women, and only 25% of grants went to women! I fed the numbers the Research Council advisor I spoke to sent me into a spreadsheet. This is what I saw:
We researchers often talk about how hard it is to get research funding. Only 9% of applications to SAMKUL were funded this year, and 2013 was about the same. But women who applied had an even worse chance of receiving funding. Oh, in 2012 the gender balance was pretty even. But a woman who applied to SAMKUL in 2013 only had a 4% chance of receiving funding. A man who applied that year had a 15% chance of being funded. This year, women stood a 6% chance of being funded. Men had a 12% chance.
That means that this year, a man who applied to SAMKUL had twice the chance of being funded compared to a woman. And this is despite the fact that more women applied than men, and that there were more women than men among the 25 best applications.
Of course, the Norwegian Research Council has a policy that’s intended to improve the awful gender imbalance we have in research leadership. SAMKUL’s work plan for 2016–2020 also explicitly sets gender balance as a goal: “When selecting projects for funding in the future, the programme board will ensure that the gender balance among the project managers remains good.”
The call also states that moderate gender quotas will be used in the selection of projects: when a man and woman’s applications are assessed as essentially equal in quality and relevance, the woman’s project will be selected. The fact that men had twice the likelihood of getting funding this year suggests that the committee forgot about all these fine words about gender balance in research leadership. It’s really difficult to see how such a clear bias towards funding men could have happened, both in 2013 and in 2016, if someone in the meeting had simply asked, “Have we considered the gender balance? Are we assessing men and women equally?”
It’s surprising how few specifics the Research Council website and reports provide about gender distribution. These charts and figures are not from their website: I made them from numbers I requested from an advisor at the Research Council. If you want to see the details, here is the spreadsheet.
There is a midway report on SAMKUL published in 2015 which includes a section on gender balance, but it doesn’t include all the relevant information. It states that 10 of 24 projects (40%) funded in 2012 and 2013 were led by women, but doesn’t mention that this is due to the excellent gender balance in 2012, whereas the 2013 round only had 25% women project leaders. It also doesn’t mention that more than half the applicants over these two years were women, which you statistically should mean that at least half the funded projects would be led by women. Other criteria than gender are analysed in far more detail than this. For instance, sections 2.3.6 and 2.3.7 carefully examine the number of applicants from different institutions and disciplines and compare the number of applicants to the number of grants awarded to make sure that the distribution is fair. Why has this comparison not been made for gender? Perhaps because the Research Council wanted to hide the appalling imbalance in 2013, where male project leaders had over three times the likelihood of being funded as female project leaders did?
If this data had not been suppressed in the 2015 report, perhaps this year’s committee would have been more thoughtful in ensuring a gender balance in this year’s allocations.
The Research Council needs to make changes to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Here are three steps they could take:
- Numbers showing the gender balance for applicants and awarded grants should be made public at the same time as the grant allocations are announced. Committees that allocate funding need to know that the gender balance, or imbalance, will be visible, and applicants need to know that the process was fair. It shouldn’t have been necessary for me to have to phone an advisor to get numbers showing the relationship between the gender of applicants and funded projects.
- Decision makers and advisors need training in implicit bias, so they know how it works and know how to work to avoid it.
- If the policy stated in the call is to use moderate gender quotas, then this should actually be used if it is necessary in order to achieve gender balance.
Fine words in reports and policy statements aren’t enough. The Research Council needs to examine its routines and assess whether SAMKUL has done what it was supposed to do. What happened in 2013 and 2016 cannot happen again.
It’s no use blaming the women this time. The extraordinary gender imbalance in SAMKUL’s project funding is obviously not caused by women not applying?—?more women applied than men. It is not caused by women’s’ research being worse than men’s’?—?the external panels found women’s’ projects to be as good as men’s. No, the numbers show that the problems lies with the program committee that prioritises men’s projects above women’s, with “relevance” as their excuse. That’s not good enough in 2016.
If you think gender balance in research is important, please share this on Twitter and Facebook so more people will read it, and research councils around the world reconsider their policies
I got another rejection yesterday, and was very dejected until I read the assessment: my project, Machine Vision: The Cultural Aesthetic and Ethical Consequences of Visual Technologies, was one of only seven out of 126 to receive the top grade!! But it wasn’t one of the eleven projects funded, which I suppose has to do with political decisions – another project from my department was funded, and the most obvious interpretation is that the committee thought his application was better than mine and decided they couldn’t fund two projects from one department. And yes, of course I was angry, but this morning, I’ve decided to focus on the grade I received instead (“Exceptional”!!!) and take that as a big motivation to keep working on this project.
I have never been so in love with a project as when writing this application, and I really thought I had a chance of getting the grant, which would have allowed me to hire a three year post.doc., a PhD fellow, work with Bergen Kunsthall’s curators and with artists to develop a professionally curated art exhibition on the topic, which would have fed back into the research. I also had a fabulous team of international experts lined up, who would attend workshops and a final conference. And it was going to fund a sabbatical at MIT.
I still get to do the sabbatical at MIT, at the Department of Comparative Media Studies, where I’m looking forwards to working with people like William Uricchio (I love his work on algorithmic images) and Nick Montfort and others. And a lot of other great stuff goes on around Boston, for instance in the Social Media Collective at Microsoft where Tarleton Gillespie in particular does great work on algorithmic culture. I had a one-semester sabbatical coming up in a year anyway, and my department has approved it, and I have a lovely letter of invitation from MIT – so hooray! The plan is to spend the Autumn semester of 2017 there.
Knowing the reviewers loved my project is so much better than that utterly discouraged feeling I had for the hours between finding out about the rejection and receiving the assessment. I was crushed. It’s one thing learning that something you were ho-hum about was rejected. It’s very different learning that something you feel is really, really good was rejected. So it makes an immense difference knowing that I was right that it was a good application. Just a shame it wasn’t funded.
And hey, see that word “risk” in the last sentence? When I was at the information meeting for ERC grants a couple of weeks ago, they spent so much time talking about how ERC grants must involve risk. That’s the main difference between an ERC grant and a national research council grant, they said. The project has to be high risk and high gain if successful. So maybe this project idea will work well for an ERC? Here is the handout the consultants at the course gave us about how to make sure ERC reviewers know your project is high risk:
Although to be honest, I need to think about what the risk the reviewers see really is. Is it because I want artists, anthropologies, art historians and philosophers to work together and that might not work out? I think my plan was pretty feasible, actually.
Anyway, I have a few more years I can apply for an ERC consolidator grant, and the next deadline is in February, so I will apply then. I promise. Please, internet, hold me to that promise!
Although my overall grade was 7, I did only score a 6 on one aspect of the project, the project manager and research group. Maybe that’s what killed it (although my overall score was 7, so obviously other funded projects did worse than me).
That was my only score that was less than perfect. Although really they don’t seem too worried about it. And they didn’t consider the advisory board structure I had set up which I think would have been brilliant. Oh well.
Dear Jill, remember that they really liked your project. They thought it was exceptional. Even if they didn’t fund it.
(Oh, and I uploaded the full assessment to Researchgate. I figured I should get something out of all that hard work, right?)
Update June 28: Here is the dataset of my survey of these students on Google Sheets or download it from Figshare. Feel free to use it but please let me know!!
Anders and I are researching Snapchat stories. Mostly we’re watching hundreds and hundreds of stories to see what kinds of narrative techniques people use, but we also want to know what regular users actually think about stories. Do they watch stories much? Do they make stories? What do they think is a good story?
So yesterday I visited a class of media students at a local high school. They’re planning a TV journalism project for the autumn where they’ll use Snapchat as well as making more conventional news stories, so I gave a short lecture about storytelling in Snapchat and then we had the most excellent class discussion about it, after which they generously filled out a short questionnaire I had prepared. I feel like I got a lot out of this meeting, and hope to visit several other schools too – if you’re a high school teacher near Bergen and would like a visit, let me know!
I haven’t gone through the written responses yet, but there were a lot of insightful comments from the classroom discussion. So I’m using this blog post as a research journal, writing out the student comments I noted down and found particularly useful, and that I may want to quote in future research. The facts: this was a class of thirty-five 16-17-year olds in a Norwegian high school (VG1, medielinjen) on June 1, 2016. I didn’t make a recording, because I didn’t want to deal with handling research data that can be tied to an individual, so this is based on my handwritten notes.
The teachers started off the discussion asked why they like Snapchat – to the teachers, Snapchat stories look like badly done television, and they wondered why the students wouldn’t rather watch better-quality YouTube videos or something.
“It’s easily available,” said one student (lett tilgjengelig was the Norwegian expression), and many others supportived her. “Isn’t YouTube just as easily available?” a teacher asked. The students didn’t have a real answer for that, but they clearly felt Snapchat was more available. I suspect this might be due to the feed in Snapchat. You don’t have to think about what to watch next. You just open the app and start clicking.
A lot (maybe most?) of the students said they like Snapchat because they like seeing their friends’ lives. A substantial number of the students only have their actual friends on Snapchat (I’m guessing more than half? I’ll get the numbers when I go through the written responses) but there are also quite a few who follow celebrities and bloggers they don’t know personally. A student who does follow celebrities said she liked seeing their Snapchat stories because “it’s more personal” (det blir mer personlig når du følger kjendiser på Snapchat). Other students nodded and added that they liked the behind the scenes content.
When asked why they published snaps to their own stories, one student commented, “It’s easy, because you don’t have to plan it.” Others chimed in, saying that there was so little pressure. You can just snap something and post it without worrying too much about it. On the other hand, one student said he far preferred Instagram to Snapchat because the photos are better, precisely because people take more time and are more selective about which photos they post to Instagram.
One really interesting point that came up was the idea of a social media feed as stressful. One student said she liked Snapchat because it wasn’t stressful like Facebook is. “Why is Facebook stressful?” a teacher asked. “There’s just too much! The timeline never ends,” she said (Facebook er stress. Det er for mye på Facebook. Tidslinjen tar aldri slutt.) This seemed to be a feeling shared by many of the students. A young man echoed the first student: “There is always more on Facebook,” he said. “Yes, on Snapchat I only follow people I want to see,” another student said, but then followed up, saying “Well, except the ones I don’t really want to see. I just click through them quickly to make them go away.” I wondered why they clicked through the snaps rather than just swiped the story away, but I don’t think I really got an answer. Maybe to see whether there was something interesting at the end of the story? Or maybe because of the knowledge that the person who posted it would have
A lot of the students seemed to feel this need to cleanse their feeds or to keep their feeds empty. One of the students actually used the term cleanse (rense): “I click through all the stories to clean them away.” (Jeg klikker gjennom for å rense de vekk.) So it seems they like that they have fewer friends on Snapchat than Facebook, thus fewer items in their feeds, and that the fact that stories disappear after 24 hours maybe isn’t just about privacy but about being able to start with a clean slate, or not feel that there was more information than you could handle.
Here is of one of the survey responses I received, transcribed in my handwriting and translated from Norwegian. I’m a humanities scholar, and I’ve not done this kind of research before, so to be honest, I haven’t even figured out how to get my stack of 40 responses entered into a spreadsheet. I started bravely, but only got to the third question, where the student has (as intended) crossed off several options, before my spreadsheet broke down. Do I use several cells in the spreadsheet for each question? Maybe I don’t type in the full response but generate some kind of codes? Like this, maybe: Informant 1, uses-several-times-a-day, sent-snaps-today, didn’t-post-snapto-story-today, posted-snap-to-story-last-week. That is going to be very time-consuming. Is there better software? A better system for organising it? If you have any ideas, please let me know! I’d like to make the dataset public, so it’d be good to organise the data in a way that is useful to me as well as others. (I assume this is social science methods 101 but hey, I’m from the humanities…)
I’ve been watching lots of Snapchat stories and thinking about the narrative techniques they use – I think I need to write a paper about that. So today’s Snapchat Research Story is about Snapchat and narrative. This story is over three minutes long, which is probably way too long for Snapchat…
I really like how the ten second video limit makes you choose your words very carefully, and split what you want to say into clear points. If you ramble on you instantly see it doesn’t work and have to redo it right away which is a really good learning strategy! I find doing this is helping me clarify my thoughts. This video took me 90 minutes to make, start to finish, and wasn’t storyboarded but obviously these are things I was already thinking about.