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Gender disparities 
in global health 
Reflection and action at EDCTP

Pauline Beattie

Around a third of the projects in the EDCTP2 portfolio are led by a female coordinator (principal investigator). These figures appear to reflect the overall gender imbalance in scientific research. The She Figures 2018 report indicates that one-third of the EU’s researchers in 2016 were women, consistent with recent global figures reported by UNESCO. The gender imbalance worsens along the career path, with an even lower proportion of women at senior academic/researcher level.

So, how can EDCTP buck the trend and improve female participation across all of its activities and grant funding, especially for its international collaborative clinical research grants (RIAs)? Applications for grants are evaluated by independent experts: peer reviewers and review committee members. Our review of the application and evaluation data suggested two first steps.

Only 31.5% of grant applications submitted to EDCTP are led by a woman. Once proposals are reviewed, we observed that there is no difference in the success rates between male and female lead-applicants. Therefore, to encourage more women to apply and thus to increase the number of applications submitted by women may help to shift the balance at the project level.

In February 2019, The Lancet series “Advancing women in science, medicine and global health”, highlighted the gender disparities across the sector, including the social, cultural and financial challenges women in low- and middle-income countries face in developing a career in science. The core message of the series was: ‘Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights; it is also crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients.’

This message became the stimulus for reflection in the EDCTP Scientific Advisory Committee. During the meeting on 21-22 May 2019, members discussed strategies for EDCTP to address gender and geographical imbalance in its activities. A working group, comprising members of the committee and EDCTP staff, was established. Its first task was to collect and review the available data on gender balance in EDCTP activities, and to develop an action plan.

EDCTP conducted several interviews to produce a video on the topic of gender equity in research: “Gender imbalance – a true issue in research”.

Reviewing EDCTP funding and 
selection procedures

Looking at our evaluation procedures, 37% of the 5912 remote peer reviews were from female experts and overall 39.8% of the members of expert review committees were women, although the gender balance of individual committees varied. Given that EDCTP also strives for a geographical balance (Europe/Africa) in its evaluation procedures, we examined also the gender balance across regions. This was found to be similar.

The internal review led to several immediate decisions already put into action:

  • to collect and monitor the data carefully;
  • to improve the gender balance in EDCTP evaluation procedures, achieving (and surpassing) the 40% target set by the European Commission for expert committees;
  • to highlight the issue of unconscious bias in the briefing materials and presentations to reviewers, and
  • to monitor and challenge, where necessary, any evidence of bias during the evaluations.

Advocacy, recognition, and collaboration

Communications and advocacy are key to promote gender balance and increase participation by women in EDCTP activities.

Through our Prizes, including the Outstanding Female Scientist Prize, EDCTP publicly recognises the achievements of talented scientists, hoping that their example may inspire more women and men in Africa to pursue a research career. Previous prize winners include Professor Marleen Temmerman (Aga Khan University, Kenya) in 2016 and the late Professor Gita Ramjee (South Africa Medical Research Council) in 2018. They have a lasting legacy through their significant scientific research contributions in their fields and as trainers and mentors to young researchers in Africa.

A collaborative approach to addressing gender disparities is necessary. EDCTP and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) organised the workshop “Enhancing networking among African and European scientists to close regional and gender disparities experienced in EDCTP1 and EDCTP2 funded health research capacity activities in sub-Saharan Africa”. It took place in Addis Ababa on 19-20 November 2019 and provided a platform for 97 delegates from 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and 6 European Union member states to share their experiences and to discuss potential solutions. Connecting fellows through the EDCTP Alumni Network may also contribute to break down geographical barriers and provide a framework for mentoring up-and-coming researchers.

Only the start

This is just the start of the process. The working group has contacted other funding agencies to learn from their strategies, policies and practices, and to adopt and adapt new ideas for EDCTP’s niche. In this respect, the European Union's Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 represents an important reference document.

The scope of the EDCTP gender working group also includes the integration of sex and gender considerations in EDCTP-funded research. EDCTP will engage with institutions in Africa and Europe where EDCTP-funded research takes place to find out how they address gender disparity. EDCTP wishes to adopt a comprehensive and catalytic funding approach to support the career path of young talented African investigators and build African scientific leadership. Ensuring a more equal representation of males and females in research will take time but there are reasons for optimism. The proportion of women applying for EDCTP fellowships is increasing, and their success rate is slightly higher than that of male applicants. Without doubt, this cadre of talented female fellows will become research leaders in Africa.

Female researchers in EDCTP grants