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A system imbalance

The distribution of research productivity grants from CNPq is marked by gender inequality

The distribution of research productivity grants from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), a funding authority that rewards scientists with outstanding performance, was marked by a high rate of gender inequality in the last decade, according to a survey conducted by researchers from the federal universities of Santa Catarina, Alagoas, and Pernambuco. They analyzed the profiles of 601 grant beneficiaries and found that 63% of them were men, while only 37% were women. Such a discrepancy tends to grow the higher the level in the grant hierarchy. In the 1A category—for researchers who show excellence in writing scientific articles and training human resources—73.7% were men and 26.3% were women. In the senior category, which includes leading scientists in their fields who have been beneficiaries of 1A and 1B for at least 15 years, 88.8% were men and 11.2% were women.

According to CNPq data, of the 184,728 grants awarded from 2010 to 2021, 64.7% were for men and 35.3% for women. “The numbers expressly illustrate the gender inequality of Brazilian academia,” says sociologist Marina Félix de Melo, from the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL), one of the authors of the study published in October in Configurações. “Women, despite being more numerous in teaching and research institutions and publishing as many papers as men, still have a hard time reaching the country’s most prestigious levels of the scientific hierarchy.”

Productivity grants were established in 1976 to value and encourage scientific production in Brazil. The idea was to reward scientists for their efforts to generate knowledge and train new researchers. There are currently three categories: senior, level 1 (divided into sub-levels 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D) and level 2. In addition to the salary they receive from the institutions that employ them, level 2 grant beneficiaries receive R$1,100 per month. Level 1 beneficiaries receive R$1,200 to R$1,500, plus an additional amount to cover translations, attending events, and publishing articles. “The monetary benefits are insignificant,” says Melo. “What really matters is the symbolic benefit, meaning prestige and academic influence.” She explains that higher level grantees are asked to sit on scientific and advisory committees, which assess all types of applications submitted to CNPq, including those applying for new productivity grants. They are also more likely to be successful when applying for funding or for new positions at universities.

Alexandre Affonso e Tiago Cardoso

To reach the higher categories, researchers must begin with the lower ones. Candidates are evaluated for their scientific production, their role in the formation of graduate students, their participation in national and international groups and institutions, their role in leading research projects and networks, their work in scientific societies and journals, their awards, and other distinctions. Applicants for the 1A and senior categories are evaluated based on additional criteria, such as their roles as leaders in their field and their ability to explore new scientific frontiers. These items have different weights and each gets a score from zero to 10. Such criteria do not, however, ensure a totally unbiased assessment, according to physicist Márcia Bernardes Barbosa, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)—a 1B productivity grantee and member of the CNPq advisory committee in the fields of physics and astronomy. “The scores depend on parameters constructed from subjective impressions, expectations, and assessment values set by the evaluators, who are mostly men.”

Sociologist Amurabi de Oliveira, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), adds that, over time, this dynamic has generated different guidelines when it comes to granting the benefit. “In the human sciences, it is usually a tool of recognition for older researchers who have produced quality work in their careers; in the exact sciences, it represents an incentive for young and promising scientists to continue to engage in quality studies,” highlights the sociologist, one of the study authors. According to Melo and Oliveira, the current criteria do not take into account the gender dimensions of research activity in Brazil. On the contrary: they are reproducing mechanisms that make sure men remain the majority in the higher strata of their scientific careers.

On the other hand, Biochemist Helena Nader, from the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), warns that one must also analyze how the demand for these grants has evolved. “It is possible that, in some areas, the gender imbalance is due to the fact that women submit fewer applications than men,” she states, referring to a common phenomenon in male-dominated fields, where women can feel discouraged to fight for career positions. “In these cases, we must take a step back and investigate why they don’t apply as much as men. But when the demand from women is equal to or greater than that from men, the problem lies in the CNPq evaluation process, which may be biased,” highlights the researcher, who holds a 1A productivity grant. Melo and Oliveira were unable to obtain such data. CNPq did not respond to our requests for comment before publication of this issue.

Alexandre Affonso e Tiago Cardoso

Despite its limitations, the survey published in Configurações points to trends that have been observed in previous studies. One of them, published in 2015 in Cadernos Pagu, analyzed the profile of productivity grant beneficiaries between 2001 and 2012. A study led by sociologist Moema de Castro Guedes, from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), found that the increased number of grants in many areas was not accompanied by an increase in female beneficiaries. At Salgado Filho University, in Rio de Janeiro, researchers focused their attention on how these grants were distributed among tenured professors—the highest level for university professors in Brazil—from 2013 to 2016. They found that 63% were men and 37% were women, with the female share decreasing the higher the level of the grant. Márcia Barbosa also analyzed the profile of productivity grant beneficiaries, focusing on the period from 2001 to 2011. She observed that the percentage of women holding level 2 grants in physics was 10%, dropping to 5% at level 1.

According to Barbosa, the discrepancies pointed out by these studies result from a set of obstacles imposed on female scientists throughout their careers, making it difficult to reach the highest level of academic recognition. They are almost always anchored in a social perception that women do not have the skills necessary for scientific production. “It is not uncommon for women to face prejudice based on labels such as sensitive, emotional, unable to grasp calculations or abstractions,” says the physicist. Many give up on pursuing an academic career. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the areas of computer science, physics, and mathematics (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 289).

Women accepted into a PhD program in these areas face greater obstacles than men. Melo and Oliveira found that women take an average of 4.3 years to obtain the title, while men take 3.8 years. Men tend to obtain grants earlier in their careers and have more time to invest in their scientific production and progress to higher levels. “Having a PhD is a minimum requirement for the grants in all fields. Therefore, the longer it takes them to obtain this title, the longer it takes for them to become a part of this system and progress in it,” says Melo.

Alexandre Affonso e Tiago Cardoso

Their taking longer to obtain their PhD almost always has to do with the challenges women face in reconciling research activities and the demands of motherhood, as they tend to have children around the same time they are establishing an academic career. “Scientists who become mothers go through a period of decreased productivity, which only begins to reverse years later,” highlights Moema Guedes, from UFRRJ. Nader also points out that women are usually responsible for housework and family care. “One of the consequences of this is that they are less involved in international projects, as they cannot spend long periods away from home,” she says.

Gender imbalances in the granting of research resources are not restricted to Brazil: they can also be seen in developed countries. In the United States, a 2019 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that men acting as principal investigators on research projects get up to US$41,000 more from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than women in the same position. In Australia, a survey published on the Women’s Agenda website found that, in 2021, men got more funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council than women, even though the number of applicants from each gender were similar. Such resources are key for scientists, especially at the beginning of their careers, when they use them to conduct research and publish in prestigious journals, increasing their chances of being well regarded and hired by the institutions where they work.

Alexandre Affonso e Tiago Cardoso

To mitigate this problem, experts say that the institutions in the Brazilian national ST&I system must invest in mechanisms that ensure that women stay in universities and allow them to develop and evolve in their careers—which includes a fair assessment of their scientific production when granting funding. Early this year, the Lattes platform included an option that allowed researchers to indicate when they were on maternity leave. The expectation is that funding agencies take this information into account when evaluating their productivity. UFRRJ implemented a correction factor when evaluating the productivity of female scientists who have had children in the last five years. “They will be entitled to two extra years in the analysis of their production,” says Moema Guedes.

FAPESP endeavors to ensure a greater gender balance when analyzing applications for grants submitted to the institution. The team of assistant coordinators for the Scientific Board, which was recently updated, is now made up of 14 men and 12 women. “The concept of diversity and its relevance can be better appreciated in genetics,” points out Luiz Eugênio Mello, scientific director of FAPESP. “A wider variety of genes confers greater adaptability to populations. In our case, it brings in different viewpoints and broadens the debate on the various issues addressed by the Foundation.” He also adds: “We are not relying on opinions, but on studies that verify gender diversity produces better science.”

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BARROS, SUZANE C. V. & MOURÃO, L. Gender and science: An analysis of Brazilian postgraduation. Social and Organizational Psychology. vol. 37, pp. 1–12. 2020.
FERRARI, N. C. et al. Geographic and gender diversity in the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências. vol. 90, pp. 2,543–2,552. 2018.
GUEDES, M. C., AZEVEDO, N. & FERREIRA, L. O. A produtividade científica tem sexo? Um estudo sobre bolsistas de produtividade do CNPq. Cadernos Pagu. vol. 45, pp. 367–399. 2015.