Women scientists, while far fewer than male scientists, have been the brainpower behind many breakthroughs over the centuries. Yet, even today, women scientists struggle to get the funding to do the research that could potentially impact millions of lives.

The scientific process rests upon the premise that the world can be better understood through quantitative inquiry and a cycle of developing a hypothesis about how a system works, and then testing that idea. Scientists themselves undergo rigorous training to remove bias in assessment and are critiqued on their ability to design experiments that remove any potential subconscious influence of the outcome. Further, as the U.S. leads scientific research and discovery, our broader culture of rewarding success and excellence creates a belief that the most successful scientists must also have the best ideas.

However, research on scientific systems consistently shows that unbiased review of our peer scientists is elusive. For example, in a study of 127 scientists across 6 top universities, the same CV was more likely to lead to mentorship, a job offer and higher salaries when a male name (John) was used rather than a female name (Jennifer). Further research found that faculty are less likely to respond to an email inquiring about a lab position when it came from a woman or person from an ethnic minority background.

These fundamental differences underpin an ecosystem where 5% of labs produce 50% of the next generation of assistant professors. Approximately 80% of these labs are headed by men, reflective of the same distribution in full professorships. On average, elite labs run by men have more male trainees.

Philanthropists who are motivated to find or create solutions to complex health problems are confronted with a challenging, yet staid medical research landscape. Unfortunately, unconscious bias has played a major role in shaping which scientists, and which ideas, can be successful.

Philanthropic capital can play a role in balancing the scale. Our team at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy has been trying new ways to eliminate unconscious bias in the programs that we influence.

Creating a Blind Peer Review Process

In 2019, the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) embarked on a project to help a family foundation develop a new funding program for a neuroscience-related condition. This research area is relatively new; the first paper identifying the condition was published only 20 years ago, and the first brain imagining study published in 2017.

Knowing that gender bias is a pervasive factor in selecting research teams, CSP outlined key points where gender bias could creep in, then set out to develop a plan to reduce the potential impact of that bias.

First, we removed all mention of first names and all gender pronouns from our discussion of the proposals, a simple, but key innovation. In practice, this meant that anywhere that a full name was referenced, i.e, “Rosalind Franklin’ lab*” we changed it to read “The Franklin lab”. We used language such as “the research team” and simply referred to all investigators by last name and title only, i.e. “Dr. Franklin.”

While this change required extra effort and felt a little awkward at first, it quickly became second nature for our team. With each subsequent conversation with the grant reviewers, it became easier to speak in gender-neutral terms.

After input from the peer review committees came in, the next step was to synthesize their feedback. Throughout this process, we continued to keep all proposals labeled by the lead investigator’s last name. We highlighted only the merits of the proposals. After a staged review process that took approximately three months from start to finish, CSP made our final recommendations to the board of directors regarding which projects to fund. As the final slide deck with our recommendations came together, we realized that we had hit an equal split.

After funding decisions were made, our team went back to see what the initial applicant pool looked like. We discovered that 38% of the proposals were submitted by female investigators. While this is by no means a perfect experiment, it was an actionable step that review teams can take to control the points where gender bias could creep in.

In a second year of funding, CSP repeated the experiment. The second time felt much more natural to all involved. Once again, this approach resulted in an equal split of male and female researchers moving for final recommendation for funding. While two rounds of funding in one program is not “proof” that gender bias in research can be eliminated, it shows that review teams can take concrete steps toward equity in the grant review process. This is important because equitable funding practices will translate into a leveled playing field, where the best ideas, put forward by the best scientists, regardless of gender, and potentially race, are funded.

CSP’s Commitment to Promoting Diversity and Equity in Science

Decades of research has provided clear evidence that greater diversity in science leads to increased intellectual rigor, better decision-making and more creative solutions. In the case of our experiment, while it took a few extra steps to remove gender references, knowing that each proposal was judged solely on merit was well worth the extra effort. Moving forward, CSP will continue to work to remove points of unconscious bias and strive for diversity as advisory and review committees are assembled.

Changing habits and norms is hard, but nothing worth doing ever came easy. Seeing the two sides of the gender balance scale fall equally is an early, yet gratifying result.

*Dr. Rosalind Franklin is an example scientist in this piece, in honor of her contributions to our understanding of the structure of DNA.