Recently I have reviewed a project from a female proponent. Among the scientific content there was a section about the under-representation of women in a specific field - saying that, on top of all the scientific justifications for the project, it should also be approved to support women in that field.

I know that in some countries, e.g. Germany, gender is often considered a tiebreaker as affirmative action in order to support women in science. However, in this case there is no such policy in the call guidelines.

Is this kind of argument appropriate in a grant proposal? Should it be a criterion to be taken into consideration?

  • 16
    What do the funding agency and proposal guidelines say?
    – Jon Custer
    May 25, 2018 at 14:22
  • 3
    @JonCuster Nothing related to gender or any affirmative action.
    – The Doctor
    May 25, 2018 at 14:25
  • 4
    Is this a young investigator type of award that is partially driven by the “promise” and characteristics of the individual?
    – Dawn
    May 25, 2018 at 14:37
  • 32
    So the project is from the same woman that is saying to favor her due to her sex? And not only did her just say informally this but actually wrote it down in the scientific section? That sounds quite outrageous. It could be something that you might evaluate, but being told what to do in that way seems like the author of the project is a weak candidate trying desperately to get the grant. Research should be about merit, so someone trying to dodge that with her sex doesn't sound like an exceptional candidate.
    – Bakuriu
    May 25, 2018 at 18:49
  • 5
    In germany it's only a tiebreaker if both are equally qualified. As reviewer you should be concerned with the scientific qualification, everything else will be handeled by the grant agency and they decide anyways. Other than that it's pretty strange that she's basically saying she deserves it just because she's a woman.
    – user64845
    May 25, 2018 at 21:03

5 Answers 5


This does not feel like something you as an external grant reviewer should really care about. The gender of the applicant may or may not be a tie breaker (or even a major factor) for the jury, but they will know which it is. If gender is a factor in the evaluation, they will also be acutely aware that the applicant is female, because either the system or an administrative person will have flagged the application as coming from a female applicant. No need to tell the jury that this is indeed a female applicant.

In consequence, I think you should simply ignore this part of the application. Keep in mind that as a reviewer, you are not deciding on the application - you are merely laying down the facts (e.g., related to the scientific quality of the proposal and applicant) so that the jury can decide based on their own strategy, criteria and availability of funding.

Side remark: note that even should you disagree with the notion that the gender of the applicant should play a role, you should resist "mentally subtracting some points" because the applicant even brought it up. It's not your place to decide if gender should or should not be part of the evaluation. If you would decide to judge the proposal more harshly to counteract a perceived undue advantage, you yourself quickly become part of the problem. Nothing good can come out of that.

  • 7
    @TheDoctor Fair enough. I want to leave the remark in as I think it may be important for other readers, but I removed a suggestion that you specifically felt this way,
    – xLeitix
    May 25, 2018 at 15:37
  • 7
    @TheDoctor I should also say that there is, upon second reading, nothing specific in the question that I object against, but many discussions in the recent past (which often start with innocent-but-actually-loaded questions) have made me wary and suspicious. I apologize.
    – xLeitix
    May 25, 2018 at 15:40
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    This does not feel like something you as an external grant reviewer should really care about. - I would think this would depend on the review guidelines. Yes, if you were specifically told to only evaluate the intellectual merits of the proposal, but perhaps no if you were told to also account for impact to the scientific community.
    – Kimball
    May 25, 2018 at 15:42
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    what troubles me is the following: as a reviewer you are asked to judge the scientific part of the proposal. The problem is that within the scientific section it is written that the reviewer should be biased based on the gender of the candidate. In this particular case I am not sure that ignoring deliberately this part can be a good strategy, since scientific sections should be judged as a whole for every candidate. Otherwise, you create a 2nd bias by choosing the subsections to judge the proposal.
    – PsySp
    May 27, 2018 at 10:30
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    "not your place to decide if gender should or should not be part of the evaluation" - that's of course up to the review guidelines. Nevertheless, as OP clarified the proposal topic is in abstract physics and thus not on a topic that is itself related to gender studies. Thus, I'd consider "mentally subtracting points" for not being concise: the proposal is not totally focused on the (abstract physics) point but contains irrelevant matter. Just as I'd do for anything else irrelevant to the proposed topic (in the "science section"), or any other paragraphs that should be in another part. May 27, 2018 at 10:31

The answer invariably lies in the instructions the funding institution provides. If instructions have not been provided, and you don't know how to appropriately review -- as with any other review issue, contact the program officer, or whoever is managing the review process, and ask.

I haven't seen processes that use this information for general science grants, but such issues surrounding diversity efforts are often fair criteria in things like training grants (e.g., the NSF GRFP review process: https://www.nsfgrfp.org/applicants/application_components/merit_review_criteria), so it wouldn't surprise me if there were situations where such considerations are important.


I think there are situations where this information is relevant.

First, as you stated, there could be explicit notes in the call which signal that one of the goals of the funding is to increase the diversity of the field.

Second, you might be asked to evaluate the "promise" of the applicant, or the potential of the applicant to significantly impact the field. This might be common in a "young investigator" program. In this case, I think information about an applicant's individual characteristics and their ability to impact the field as a member of a diverse group might be relevant (in addition to the project's impact on the field of course).

Third, the evaluation guidelines might include some criteria looking for the impact of the proposal on a broader set of institutional goals. For instance, we have a faculty research fund at my school, and one of the criteria is "impact of the project on the university." In this case, if one of the university goals is better representation, then funding this project would advance that. I basically think of this as a PR criteria.

In other situations, where you are only asked to evaluate the intellectual merits of the project itself, this information would not be relevant.


That may depend on the grant proposal regulations and the nature of the project.

If the project is specifically about something that needs funding to support women in the field, such a statement might be considered auxiliary to the scientific background.

If the regulations, as stated in question, do not mention anything related to gender or affirmative action, such statement should carry no weight beyond that which is already provided through the scientific background.

Professionally speaking, providing such arguments in a grant proposal can be a slippery rope. Provided that neither of the above is the case, she is basically asking you to favor her proposal based on a criterion that is not stated in the relevant procedure and that other applicants, consequently, don't have, thus treating them unfairly. Also, depending on regulations, if such a grant proposal was refused, she might be able to challenge on the grounds of sexual discrimination and if it was accepted, some other party might also challenge the decision on the same ground.


(Thanks for the clarification.)

It is entirely inappropriate for a candidate to try to use their gender this way in their formal application. If she happens to be the best candidate, she has created a context where she can be seen by others as only having been selected for her gender. And if she isn't selected, she's created a context where she can claim sexual discrimination. This is completely unprofessional.

As experts in the field, selecting who goes forward, you can choose to bias your decisions in favour of women or other under-represented groups. This could be formally stated, or it could be by informal agreement amongst yourselves. The candidate could even mention this jokingly during an interview.

Putting this in their application though - just no. You don't put the people assessing you in that position.

  • 2
    I'm surprised that this is currently the lowest-rated answer. The applicant is brazenly demanding a sexist bias in her own favor! I thought society was beyond that kind of thing now?!
    – Vandroiy
    May 26, 2018 at 18:55
  • 1
    @Vandroiy A smart applicant would keep it verbal. Even better, a smart applicant would say in the interview, "Hire me because I'm female. I've had to work harder to get here than your other applicants, and I'll keep working harder." I'd respect that a lot, and it certainly would count in their favour. I want smart, determined people. The OP's applicant though - hell no.
    – Graham
    May 26, 2018 at 19:46
  • @Vandroiy The first paragraph of current top answer is a much better answer to such a brazen demand. This answer seems to assume the applicant should be wary of reviewers' feelings when applying, which sounds irrelevant. Graham, so you're saying it can be said out loud, but shouldn't be put in writing ? Why so ? If it's true, why wouldn't them write it down ? May 26, 2018 at 19:54
  • @NikanaReklawyks Verbally, it can be taken as a joke. I'm fine with applicants having a sense of humour. Also my example about "I had to work harder" - using it to show not just a sense of humour, but demonstrating determination too. That kind of thing translates really badly in writing though, because someone could misunderstand it as having a grudge against "the system". Application forms should be cold hard facts, not personality-based. The interview process is where you add your personality to the facts.
    – Graham
    May 26, 2018 at 20:48
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    @NikanaReklawyks The biggest problem though is an unprofessional attitude. Presuming to tell the selection team they should bias their selection process unfairly in your favour - that's seriously unprofessional. Not as much as a bribe or "my dad owns this company", but it's still not acceptable.
    – Graham
    May 26, 2018 at 21:06

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