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NHMRC’s action to achieve gender equity is welcome – and broader sector-wide interventions are needed

The Office of the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador welcomes the announcement today by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of the introduction of bold new measures to reach gender equity in the Investigator Grants scheme. Following a national consultation in July and August 2022, the NHMRC is introducing changes to address the disadvantage faced by women and non-binary applicants in the next funding round, which will open in January 2023. 

The changes will see the Investigator Grant scheme award equal numbers of grants to women and men applicants at mid- and senior-career stages (Leadership category). Structural priority funding – an existing measure introduced in 2017 to achieve equal funded rates for women and men – will continue for early-career applicants (Emerging Leadership). Non-binary researchers will be included alongside women in both gender equity interventions. 

Gender disparities in the Investigator Grant scheme

The Investigator Grant scheme was introduced 2018–19, replacing all previous fellowship schemes as part of the NHMRC’s reformed grant program. The Investigator Grants provide a salary and a flexible research support package for outstanding researchers at all career stages. According to the NHMRC’s own analysis, gender disparities exist in the scheme. 

It is essential that any gender disparities are addressed to ensure that we support the best health and medical research. Australia’s health and medical research sector needs a strong and diverse workforce to ensure our community’s ongoing and improved health and well-being.   

Gender equity in research grants is only one piece of the puzzle

The NHMRC’s special measure in the Investigator Grant scheme is a much-needed action, but it is no silver bullet. Reaching gender equity in research grants is only one piece of the puzzle.  

“What we see happening in the Investigator Grant scheme is a narrow look at a single scheme over three years and does not necessarily reflect what is happening in research grant funding more widely in Australia,” says Dr Isabelle Kingsley, Research Associate at the Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador.

A longitudinal study, led by Kingsley—which looks at 20 years of research grants awarded by the NHMRC and the Australian Research Council (publication in preparation)—points to a complex issue that extends beyond research grants. 

There are fewer women than men in research workforces, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. More women leave the research workforce than men, resulting in even fewer women at the most senior levels. Myriad systemic and cultural barriers contribute to the loss of women from the research workforce. For example, compared to men, women carry more of the caring and domestic responsibilities, hold more insecure employment, such as casual and fixed-term contracts, and experience higher levels of workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.  

Action is needed on all fronts

Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador said: “Funding bodies can’t fix gender inequity on their own. Action is needed across the sector to remove the multitude of entrenched systemic and cultural barriers that disadvantage women, non-binary and other marginalised researchers. Everyone has their part to play.”  

Modelling by Australian National University Professor Lisa Kewley shows that affirmative action across a number of areas can achieve gender equity much faster than more pointed interventions targeting singular issues. Professor Kewley suggests research institutions need to undertake exit surveys to understand why women leave, adopt retention targets and policies, develop equal hiring at all levels, and support the advancement of women into senior positions. 

Government also plays a key role. Governments can strengthen employer accountability for their social and legal responsibilities to provide safe, equitable working environments. Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) provide accreditation for organisations who demonstrate accountability. Governments could go further by implementing eligibility criteria requiring universities, Medical Research Institutes and Publicly Funded Research Agencies to achieve a minimum SAGE accreditation as a condition of receiving Commonwealth funds. 

Only when the whole sector comes together to contribute solutions across a multitude of areas will we see real improvements in gender equity over time. 

Media Contact: Becky Laurence,, 0466 942 077