A new study in Nature has found that grant reviewers favor vague and broad terminology used more often by men, despite the fact that proposals using those terms don’t produce better research. The study found that despite the use of blinded review for grants, gender discrimination against female applications takes place. The researchers studied grants submitted to the Gates Foundation from 2008-2017, and found that despite blinded review, female applicants receive significantly lower scores which cannot be explained by reviewer characteristics, proposal topics, or ex-ante measures of applicant quality. Instead, they found strong gender differences in the usage of broad and narrow words, suggesting that differing communication styles are a key driver of the gender score gap. Importantly, the higher reviewer scores for vague language did not predict higher innovative performance. Instead, female applicants exhibit a greater response in follow-on scientific output after an accepted proposal, relative to male applicants. According to the paper, titled, “Is Blinded Review Enough? How Gendered Outcomes Arise Even Under Anonymous Evaluation”, “Our results reveal that gender differences in writing and communication are a significant contributor to gender disparities in the evaluation of science and innovation.”
It’s been proven that diversity of individuals and ideas leads to higher levels of productivity and better outcomes, especially in innovation-driven organizations like science and technology. Many organizations have implemented strategies in order to minimize bias and maximize diversity. These strategies include emphasizing objective measures of candidates’ ability and past performance, building institutional support for equality, and increasing the diversity of evaluators to name a few. Blinded review is another method to increase diversity, and while blinded review and the other approaches are beneficial, they fall short of fully eliminating biased evaluation. If the findings in the sample of the Gates Foundation apply to the broader scientific and innovative communities, it is likely that female innovators are systematically under-funded relative to the quality of their ideas.