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Research Letter
September 15, 2015

Sex Differences in Institutional Support for Junior Biomedical Researchers

Author Affiliations
  • 1Medical Foundation Division, Health Resources in Action, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2National Institute for Child Healthcare Quality, Boston, Massachusetts

Copyright 2015 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2015;314(11):1175-1177. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.8517

Women are underrepresented in the biomedical research workforce. Only 30% of funded investigators are women.1,2 Junior faculty women have fewer peer-reviewed publications than men3,4 and are more often on clinician-educator (vs traditional) tracks.5 One reason may be differences in early-career institutional support, which to our knowledge has not been previously examined.


Application data from 2 New England biomedical research programs administered by the Medical Foundation Division of Health Resources in Action were analyzed. One program accepted applicants in a single field of study within 5 years of initial faculty appointment; the second program invited institutions to submit 2 basic science applicants within 2 years of initial appointment.

Data on start-up support provided by the employing institution (ie, salary and other support, including research technicians, equipment, and supplies) from all applications during 2012-2014 were extracted.

We compared support for men and women overall, and by scientific focus, terminal degree, and years since receiving terminal degree. Data concerning age and race were not collected. Publication data were incomplete and not included.

Two analyses were performed to examine associations with institutional characteristics. Applicants were employed by universities, hospitals, and other nonprofit research institutions. As a measure of overall institutional research resources, we stratified the sample by overall institutional funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in fiscal year 2014. We also directly compared support for men and women who applied from the same institution.

Statistical analyses were performed using Epi Info version 7.1.4 (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The P values were calculated using Kruskal-Wallis nonparametric tests (continuous variables), Spearman correlation analysis, or 2-tailed Fisher exact tests (categorical variables).

P < .05 (2-sided) was considered significant. The Hummingbird Institutional Review Board determined that this study used coded administrative data and was therefore exempt from human studies review.


The characteristics of the 219 applicants (127 men and 92 women) with complete data are reported in Table 1. An additional 8 men (6%) and 5 women (5%, P > .99) had incomplete data and were excluded.

Table 1.  
Characteristics of Men and Women Applying for Early-Career Awardsa
Characteristics of Men and Women Applying for Early-Career Awardsa

Most applicants (67%) held PhD degrees. Women were in clinical research more frequently than men. There were no differences between men and women in terminal degree or years since receiving terminal degree.

Data on institutional start-up support are reported in Table 2. Overall, men reported significantly higher start-up support (median, $889 000 [interquartile range, $283 000-$1 250 000]) than women (median, $350 000 [interquartile range, $180 000-$775 000]; P < .001); 51 men (40%) and 11 women (12%) reported support of more than $1 million (P < .001).

Table 2.  
Institutional Start-up Support for Men and Women Applying for Early-Career Awardsa
Institutional Start-up Support for Men and Women Applying for Early-Career Awardsa

Men had higher support regardless of degree, but the difference was statistically significant only for persons with PhD degrees. In basic sciences, men reported significantly more start-up support than women. Start-up support for clinical scientists was not significantly different for men and women.

Applicants were employed by 55 institutions. The top 25% (quartile 1) of the 55 institutions each received more than $122 million in NIH funding (quartile 2: >$46 million; quartile 3: >$19 million; quartile 4: ≤$19 million). Half of the applicants were from institutions in the top funding quartile (Table 1).

When stratified by NIH funding, men had larger start-up packages within each stratum (Table 2). Five institutions had more than 10 applicants. Support for men was higher in 4 of these institutions and overall (Table 2). In this group of 5 institutions, 4 women (10%) and 19 men (42%) received more than $1 million (P = .001).

Experience (years since receiving terminal degree) did not correlate with start-up package size for men (r2 = 0.01; P = .57), women (r2 = 0; P = .60), or overall (r2 = 0; P = .80).


In this preliminary study of early-career grant applicants administered by 1 organization, junior faculty women received significantly less start-up support from their institutions than men. This discrepancy was significant only among basic scientists and was not explained by degree, years of experience, or institutional characteristics.

The limitations include reliance on limited self-reported and administrative data. The representativeness and generalizability of these results to applicants to other foundations or institutions, or to other biomedical investigators, are unknown.

This first look suggests the need for systematic study of sex differences in institutional support and the relationship to career trajectories.

Section Editor: Jody W. Zylke, MD, Deputy Editor.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Robert Sege, MD, PhD, Health Resources in Action, 95 Berkeley St, Boston, MA 02116 (rsege@hria.org).

Author Contributions: Dr Sege had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Study concept and design: Sege.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: Sege, Selk.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.

Statistical analysis: All authors.

Obtained funding: Sege.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Sege, Nykiel-Bub.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: The authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

Funding/Support: The Medical Foundation Division of Health Resources in Action provided access to the administrative data.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The Medical Foundation Division of Health Resources in Action had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Correction: This article was corrected on October 1, 2015, to fix 1 error in Table 1 and 1 error in Table 2.

Rockey  S. Women in biomedical research. http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/08/08/women-in-biomedical-research/. Accessed April 1, 2015.
National Institutes of Health. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group report. http://acd.od.nih.gov/Biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2014.
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Holliday  EB, Jagsi  R, Wilson  LD,  et al.  Gender differences in publication productivity, academic position, career duration, and funding among US academic radiation oncology faculty.  Acad Med. 2014;89(5):767-773.PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Mayer  AP, Blair  JE, Ko  MG,  et al.  Gender distribution of US medical school faculty by academic track type.  Acad Med. 2014;89(2):312-317.PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref