Female researchers are "ghost writing" grant applications and submitting them under the names of male colleagues, because funding grants are skewed against women, new research suggests.
"That's not an uncommon strategy and it's simply an attempt to maximise chances to get your research underway," said Professor Deb Verhoeven, a social science researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Professor Verhoeven, who had previously analysed data on gender inequality in the film industry, led a team in examining the gender of researchers who received program grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
They found that 89 per cent of those grants were given to male-led teams over the last 15 years. This year it was 100 per cent.
Male-led research teams have been awarded all 8 prestigious 'program grants' from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which were announced on Wednesday.
Program grants make up nearly $100 million of the $877 million in total funding grants for research and are considered the "gold-standard" of the NHMRC's funding options.
"They create momentum around particular research concentrations beyond the life of the grant itself. They're very influential," Professor Verhoeven said.
Because of that, applicant teams tend to be dominated by researchers who have undertaken a huge amount of previous research. A historical tendency for women to be overlooked for research grants means that those teams are almost always dominated by men.
The chief executive of the NHMRC, Professor Anne Kelso, said: "We've been very concerned for a long time about the difference in success rates for men and women applying to our various schemes."
Gender inequality also existed in 'project grants', which make up the bulk of the NHMRC's research grants. In this year's round of funding, 15.3 per cent of female-led applications were approved compared to 17.1 per cent of applications led by men.
???"When we saw that the data were going to be just as bad this year, we pulled together all the strategic funding we could that was remaining in the budget in order to be able to fund extra women," said Professor Kelso.
As a result, the NHMRC funded an additional 34 female-led projects. That brought the total number of female lead investigators to 186, still well behind the 364 grants given to men.
"It doesn't completely remove the gap unfortunately, but it was the best we could do," Professor Kelso said.
"The further you go up the seniority scale, the fewer women you see ... There's a societal issue that people still tend to think of senior people as men rather than women, so there are subtle - often subconscious - barriers to women moving up."
Professor Kelso says this situation is made even worse because women take on the majority of carer responsibilities, making it difficult to travel overseas for conferences and collaborations.
A lack of funding can stymie female researcher's careers, creating a cascading effect where they are then overlooked for promotions, while successful applicants receive additional grants.
Part of the problem is that the NHMRC only receives two applications from women for every three from men.
"The gatekeeping is not just at the level of the funding agency. It's also at the level of team selection, and at the level where universities put grant applications up for funding," said Professor Verhoeven.
"We know that innovation occurs more successfully when we have diverse teams. And yet, we persist in funding teams dominated by men."
Program grants have not escaped unscathed. This will be the last year of the scheme. They will be replaced by "synergy grants" from 2020 onwards that would emphasise diversity of researchers in terms of gender, discipline, and experience.
Professor Kelso said that diversity was difficult to achieve but that the NHMRC was looking for "fresh thinking" and not a tokenistic "tick-a-box process".
"We're losing talent from our workforce because we're not supporting women well enough to have a long term and productive career. They're not easy issues but we all need to work together to solve them."