A scientist put together a research team to do some Awesome Science, and they wrote a grant proposal together. The team involved three PIs at different universities, their graduate students, postdocs, undergrad research students, and so on: the usual elements of a research proposal. The proposed research was excellent, and all 3 PIs are talented, respected scientists. Even so, some people doubted whether the proposal would be funded.
There are lots of reasons to doubt whether any particular proposal, however excellent, will be funded, but in this case, there was a reason unrelated to the significance of the proposed work, the research qualifications of the research team, the technical merits of the proposal, or even the lack of enough money to fund all excellent grant proposals. So what was the reason for doubt in this case?
The 3 PIs are women.
The doubt had nothing to do with the qualifications of any one of the PIs (all are highly qualified), but rested on the fact that all 3 PIs are female.
Of course, in the entire history of humankind, including today, no one would blink an eye if there were 3 male PIs. In the physical sciences, most scientists are men, and this has always been the case, so an all-male team of PIs is unremarkable, even today.
Oh sure, nowadays male PIs might describe in a proposal how they would involve female students or postdocs in the research, and they might write about how some of them have even advised females in the past, but the proposal would be funded or not funded depending on the scientific merit of the proposed work. I see proposals like this all the time.
But, even considering that this field of science is dominated by men, especially at research universities, is it so strange that a research project might be led by three women?
And, even if it is unusual, is it a problem?
In fact, it was not a problem. The pessimists were wrong, and the proposal was funded. And it was funded because the science was great and the PIs are all leaders in their field, with substantial track records of excellence and productivity.
Now, some would think the proposal was funded because the 3 PIs are women.
Are you following along? It's confusing, I know, but here is a handy summary:
If the proposal is not funded, it might be because the 3 PIs are women.
If the proposal is funded, it might be because the 3 PIs are women.
Fortunately(?), these statements refer to perceptions, not reality. Today, projects led entirely by women, even in STEM fields in which women are vastly underrepresented, are funded by the NSF if the proposed research is excellent.
We are not yet, however, at the stage where an all-female team of PIs is unremarkable. We are still at the stage where some people wonder if women get grants because grant agencies have to fund some females to meet diversity quotas or worry about projects that involve too many women. Maybe we shouldn't worry about this. Maybe we should just be happy (for now) to get grants. Maybe it is asking too much to have grants and respect?
This started me thinking about what an unremarkable proportion of women would be on a project. Is it equal to or less than the proportion of women in a particular field, or can we crank that number up a bit? In a 3-person PI team in a field in which women represent much less than 1/3 of scientists at research universities, we'd have to round a fractional woman down to zero if we used the proportional scheme.
I'm going to propose that, in fields such as this, ~25 +/- 10 % would be a non-threatening, unremarkable % of women involved in a research team. At this level, most people wouldn't worry that the science won't be any good or that talented men are being excluded for unfair reasons that have nothing to do with their research skills or experience.
But actually, my preference would be to assume that my not-entirely-serious, cynico-sarcastic analysis is flawed -- the proposal with the 3 women PIs was funded, after all -- and let some people go ahead and worry that maybe it was funded because NSF has to toss some money to the girls now and then.
Eventually (soon?), anyone who remarks in a negative way on the oddness of an all-woman PI team will be told that they, in fact, are the odd ones to think there is anything remarkable or problematic about an excellent and productive research team that just happens to involve only women.
Note: The title of this post is an oblique reference to the George Gissing novel, The Odd Women, in which "odd" doesn't mean that the women are bizarre, but refers instead to the fact that, in late 19th century England, there were more women than men of marriageable age; i.e., an "odd" number of women. The title of this post therefore refers to a possibly problematic circumstance in which there are too many women.
6 months ago