Monday, July 7, 2014

Are Review Panel Discussions Gendered? The View from Sweden

Just after submitting your grant application, you might wonder how it will be viewed by the panel. Is your research broad, independent, and showing great potential? Or, is the work unfocussed, isolated, and ultimately betraying you as inexperienced? The answer, at least in Sweden, might depend on your gender.

This past week I attended the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science 2014 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. For US readers, think of this as a little like a European AAS. On Wednesday afternoon there was a Special Meeting on Myths and Facts About Women in Astronomy. The session was devoted to data about the participation of women in astrophysics, and the organizers focussed on avoiding speculation and myths -- just the facts, please.

I had the pleasure of presenting the results from the recent demographics survey of US astronomers led by CSWA member Prof. A. Meredith Hughes. I won't recap those results here since we have already blogged about them (see here and here for some highlights). What I did want to highlight, however, was how the CSWA data are unique! With a 20 year baseline and nearly 100% participation rate, we can understand what has changed, and what has not with regard to the participation of women in astrophysics. The speakers from other countries mostly presented data gathered by their national science foundations for all of science, or (at best) physics (including astronomy). Of course those were also quite interesting, but it left me hoping that at least some of the larger European countries might conduct national surveys similar to the CSWA demographics survey. (If one looks at science as a whole, the statistics tend to be dominated by life sciences, where the participation of women is quite different than in astronomy -- astronomers need their own survey!)  Importantly, the CSWA survey isn't run by a national science agency: It consists of a few devoted individuals sending letters to the heads of various departments and institutes, and then compiling and analyzing the responses.

For me, the standout talk was by Johanna Andersson, the Head of Equality Work at Chalmers University in Sweden. She described being invited by a faculty member to sit in on a scientific review panel, and immediately noting the different adjectives used to described the work of men and women.  The work of men would often be described as deep, whereas the work of women would be narrow. Men would be broad, women would be unfocussed. Men would be independent, women would be isolated. Men would be full of potential, women would be inexperienced. The pairs of adjectives fascinated me, and I reflected on the letters of support I have written over the years.

Johanna Andersson was summarizing her recent report on Observations of Gender Equality in a Selection of the Swedish Research Council's Evaluation Panels. Intriguingly, the Swedish Research Council has placed gender-equality observers in randomly selected evaluation panels since 2011. The report is available online. If, like me, your Swedish isn't quite perfect, you will find the report gets a lot more interesting starting on page 21 (where the English translation begins). In a nutshell, here are some of the striking findings:

1.  The independence of women was often questioned.
2.  Panel members often discuss information not present in the application, including illness, family circumstances, and personal characteristics.
3.  Little attention was paid to the gender of the male applicants, but the women were often viewed as representatives of their gender.

A really handy part of the talk was a checklist of topics for which the discussion was often gendered (I will repeat these verbatim from the meeting abstract). This occurred when panelists:

1. Discussed the independence of the researcher and the individual's role in the research team.
2. Discussed parental leave, age, and the number of children.
3. Conveyed informal information about the applicant.
4. Made an assessment of the number of publications.
5. Discussed whether and why someone is listed as the first or last author on a paper.
6. Used the same terms alternately as positive and negative.
7. Discussed raising or lowering the grade of an application.

So, perhaps reader you are soon to serve on a review committee! I hope you will take heed of the report's recommendation that panelist be particularly mindful of issues of gender when the discussion turns to these topics. While surely there are important differences from nation to nation, the data from Sweden urge us all to take care when we participate in the important task of evaluating the applications of our colleagues.