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Could Demographic Information Boost the Number of Women in STEM?

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Many federal agencies distributing science, technology, engineering and math grants may be missing the opportunity to improve the field’s gender imbalance, by not asking for applicant demographic information, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday.

The study, "Federal Agencies Differ in the Data They Collect on Grant Applicants," examined six federal agencies, which award billions of dollars in annual higher-education STEM grants. Although all of them gather some form of demographic data, only three regularly collect information on the gender of their applicants and awardees, according to the report.

“These agencies have data systems that could facilitate analysis of differences, if any, in grants made to women and men,” according to the report.

Women remain a minority in STEM research programs. One reason for the disparity could be the unequal distribution of grant money between the sexes, the report posited. 

One way to determine whether this plays a role would be for the Energy Department, Defense Department and NASA to regularly collect information on their grant applicants’ gender, according to the report.

These agencies referenced a number of reasons for not collecting data, including the lack of a legal requirement to do so and no clear purpose for the information.

The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Agriculture Department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture regularly collect information on their grant applicants and awardees.

These agencies leave it up to each applicant as to whether to disclose their gender. But the majority do provide it, according to the report.

The agencies can then use these responses to compare the number of grants and amount of grant money awarded to women, compared to men. They can then determine the success rate by dividing grant recipients by applicants.

“This calculation is important because simply comparing the total number of grants awarded to women to the total number of grants awarded to men does not take into account that there are fewer women participating in STEM fields,” stated the study.

The report suggests these agencies also collect information on each applicant’s career and educational background to rule those characteristics out when examining the affect gender has on a person receiving a grant.

In response to the report, DOE, NASA and NSF provided technical comments for GAO to include. USDA, DOD and NIH did not comment on the report.

(Image via wavebreakmedia/ Shutterstock.com)

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