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EPSRC moves to address gender bias

13 May 2022

RESPONSES TO a community survey commissioned by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will help to shape actions to address the under-representation of women in engineering and the physical sciences.

Responses to a community survey will help to shape actions to address the under-representation of women in engineering and the physical sciences.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will explore how to deliver a number of actions, including different modes of application and unconscious bias observers in funding panels.

There were 361 responses to the survey, which was launched to gather the community’s perspectives on the previously published Understanding our Portfolio: a gender perspective report.

Findings in the report included:

  • women are consistently under-represented in EPSRC’s principal investigator (PI) applicant pool across our portfolio
  • application numbers from women for large grants are particularly low
  • while award rates by number of grants are similar for men and women, they are not by value of grants
  • there are notable differences in the size of grants applied for across genders, with women consistently applying for smaller grants.

Institutional barriers and culture

Respondents to the survey represented primarily mid-career and senior career stage. Nearly two thirds of the respondents had experience of either applying to be a PI or being a current or past PI on an EPSRC grant.

A majority of survey responses listed institutional barriers and culture that favour men or more established researchers as reasons for the low number of applications for larger grants from women.

A very clear majority of respondents also agreed that when applying for a large grant compared to men, women are disproportionately affected by barriers such as:

  • time
  • bias in peer review
  • limited access to networks and opportunities for support.

Recommendations regarding intervention

A number of recommendations regarding interventions were made through the survey.

From these, EPSRC have detailed a set of actions, including:

  • trialling different modes of application within specific funding opportunities
  • trialling unconscious bias observers in our funding panels
  • exploring how universities ensure diversity and fairness in their pre-selection processes for applications to EPSRC and other awarding processes
  • sharing good practice across higher education institutions.

A full list of interventions can be found in the full report.

EDI action plan

EPSRC will develop these and include further detail on implementation in its forthcoming equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) action plan, to be published later this year.

"EPSRC has an important role to play in effecting change across engineering and the physical sciences, for that change to be lasting and comprehensive it requires the involvement of the entire sector," said EPSRC deputy-director for EDI and people, Alison Wall. "That’s why it was so important to capture and share the contributions of our community through this report, which will inform our ongoing work. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate.

"We will now determine how best to implement the wide-ranging recommendations made in the report. These actions will form part of our EDI action plan to be published later this year," she added. 

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