Another Research Gender Gap: Men Get More Start-Up Money

September 17, 2015

It's no secret that women seeking to get a foothold in STEM fields often face serious impediments. Here's another potential one: Junior male medical researchers are more likely than their female peers to land sizable start-up packages from some of the nation’s top research institutions and hospitals, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The research team analyzed application data from two New England biomedical-research programs administered by the Medical Foundation Division of Health Resources in Action. The results were striking: The median start-up package for male scientists was $889,000, while the median for women was $350,000.

That means that women may not be getting the supplies and equipment needed to jump-start their careers, said Robert Sege, vice president of the Medical Foundation Division, who led the study. "I hope it will lead to institutions' beginning to take a more formal and systematic approach to how they develop start-up packages and how they monitor their own internal performance," Dr. Sege said.

Research on the relationship between gender and research funding is scarce because data about the size of start-up packages aren’t typically disclosed, he added. The division asked researchers who applied for its grants to include information about their own start-up support with their applications.

The study suggests that, while many universities have taken strong steps to diversify their student bodies in STEM fields, more work may need to be done to keep women in the scientific work force. Universities need to look at the challenges aspiring professors face and "take a serious look at each step in the pathway from promising, young graduate student to seasoned professor," Dr. Sege said.

Bolstering that argument is the fact that most students who enter medical school or graduate school immediately after earning their bachelor’s degree don't finish postdoctoral fellowships or fellowship programs until their early 30s. Recent data from the National Institutes of Health suggest that most researchers don’t receive their first independent grants until age 42, Dr. Sege said.

The study found that men were more likely to receive more financial support than women, regardless of the highest degree the researchers had earned, but the gender gap was statistically significant only among Ph.D.s. Among clinical researchers included in the study, women outnumbered men, and there was minimal disparity between the start-up packages that men and women received.

The researchers looked at applicants from universities, hospitals, and other research institutions, but Dr. Sege said he found no evidence that universities' start-up packages broke down differently along gender lines than those from the other organizations.

It’s unclear exactly what causes the disparity in start-up packages — whether it’s more common for men to negotiate better terms, or whether something else is at play, he said.

"I’m certainly as curious as anyone about what causes it," Dr. Sege said. "Once you can figure that out, you can begin to make an intelligent approach to fixing it."