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LISF committee investigates gender bias

The LUF International Study Fund (LISF) will make changes to its allocation process following an investigation into diversity in its grants policy. This investigation, which was carried out for the LISF by, among others, former committee member Mariska Kret and master’s student Marjolijn Wijnen, has shown that female students who submit an application are slightly less likely to be awarded an LISF grant than men.

The LISF awards annual grants that give talented Leiden students the opportunity to go abroad for research, an internship or their studies. The investigation was into applications submitted to the LISF in the period 1995 to 2018. This showed that the success rate for female applicants was over four percent lower than for male ones (respectively 63.2% and 67.5%). 

No difference in quality

It is unlikely that the difference in allocations is due to a difference in the quality of the written applications, the first of three steps in the selection process. The researchers anonymised all 32 applications from one of the rounds in 2019 and presented them to an assessment committee. This concluded that female and male students had submitted equally good proposals. 

Joint effort

The research was the joint effort of the researchers and the LISF committee. For the LISF the exercise was a welcome way to gain more insight into its own assessment process. Chair Rachel Schats: ‘Gender bias is a well-known problem. We know this from other grant providing organisations. We want to find out where this effect comes from, and this investigation and further research are crucial here. More information about this is very important in achieving greater gender equality and diversity in universities, and thus making us even better at offering equal opportunities to all talent. That’s why it was important to us to support the researchers wherever possible and to embrace the results.’ 

The LISF’s support included giving the researchers full access to the applications. Researchers Marjolijn Wijnen: ‘I even delved into the paper archives with the committee secretary to dig up older applications.’

Next steps

Following on from the investigation, LISF will look into how to shape an award process that gives male and female applicants an equal chance of success with an application of comparable quality. They have already experimented with explicit mention of diversity as an agenda item at every meeting. A new variant of this is now being considered and the LISF is also looking into options for anonymising the application process or part of it. Schats: ‘That’s not possible for the interview rounds of course, but it probably is for the letter rounds.’

‘LISF committees will also follow a recurring session to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of implicit gender bias,’ says Schats. ‘And then not just for the LISF, but possibly for all grant-providing sections of the Leiden University Fund. Other grant providers such as the Dutch Research Council [NWO] are already taking such steps.’ 

Keep checking

The researchers applaud this decision. ‘It’s fantastic,’ says Mariska Kret, ‘and I would say: over the next few years keep on checking whether the success rate is more balanced. Because then you’ll see if you’ve made progress.’

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