I just got reviews back on a grant proposal. On the whole the reviews were positive, but one reviewer criticised us because the five PIs are all male.

The proposed project arises naturally out of a couple of strands of work that we’ve been doing recently. The PIs are the people who’ve been involved in that work, plus the CTO of an industry partner. We’re in a niche area of applied math, and neither of the institutions involved have female staff eligible for the grant scheme working in the area of our proposal.

I support efforts to fix gender imbalances in academia, and I would have preferred a mixed-gender team. However, I’m not sure what I could have done for this project. The options seem to be:

  • Propose a fundamentally different piece of work with different participants. However, this would likely not be of interest to the industry partner, which is central to the viability of the proposal. Our original idea would then presumably not get developed.

  • Expand the proposal to bring in female colleague(s) at another institution. However, the funding scheme essentially only provides the salary for one postdoc, so the benefits for PIs at additional institutions are limited. The obvious candidates are all a long-haul flight away, so day-to-day engagement would be challenging. I’m uncomfortable asking people to do work on my proposal when I can’t offer them much in exchange.

  • Ask someone to put their name on the proposal “for show”. Clearly offensive and counterproductive.

Does anyone have any advice on how to best reconcile diversity considerations with practical realities in these circumstances?

My question is more about the general issue – and whether there is anything I should have done differently – than about how to respond to these particular reviews.

  • 15
    How did the reviewer know that the 5 PIs are all male? Was this explicitly stated or was this an assumption made from people's names?
    – Owain
    Jun 14, 2020 at 16:44
  • 2
    What kind of organization is the funder? Governmental? Business? Nonprofit? A wealthy individual? Jun 15, 2020 at 4:20
  • 17
    Does this problem actually need to be solved? Is it a criticism that need to be addressed, aka that the project doesnt get funded if you dont solve it?
    – lalala
    Jun 15, 2020 at 15:27
  • 1
    There was some discussion/complaint about the moderation notice above. I reviewed the deleted comments, reinstated one, and can confirm that the others were either answers-in-comments or obsolete. All the surviving comments seem like requests for information. Following this guidance, I then deleted the debate about moderation. Hopefully this satisfies all sides; if not, please take it to meta.
    – cag51
    Jun 16, 2020 at 3:28
  • 1
    @owain It is plausible that the reviewer has met most/all of us.
    – user125303
    Jun 16, 2020 at 8:34

6 Answers 6


This is a hard and important problem. There are a few things you can do to address it.

First, admit that there is a problem indicated by the demographics of your discipline. Tell the funding agency that

neither of the institutions involved have female staff eligible for the grant scheme working in the area of our proposal.

Tell them briefly about your universities' plans for future diverse hiring. Tell them that the grant applicants do not have control over the diversity of current staff (if this is true).

Explain how the project will contribute to gender inclusivity. You said you plan to hire one postdoc. How will you encourage gender minority scientists to apply for that postdoc? How will your selection process prevent discrimination? How will that postdoc receive professional development that will advance their career?

Will you be communicating about your project to the public, and will that be done in a way that reaches people of all genders?

It sounds like your project is applied. Will the application benefit gender minorities? Even if they get a minority of the benefit, it's still worth pointing out that your project does not exclusively benefit one gender.

Do not add a token applicant. You are obligated to allocate the project funds efficiently. Some people argue that tokenism has the opposite of the intended effect.

  • 8
    And, long term, think about how you organize things and how you invite participation.
    – Buffy
    Jun 14, 2020 at 14:15
  • 33
    A comment saying that there was no "problem" was deleted, but I'll try again: Saying that the, let's call it "demographic disparity" is a "problem" in this case would mean that the disparity is also a problem when it comes to beauticians or construction workers. Differences are not automatically a problem. As long as everybody has the same opportunities, there will be demographic differences. In order to eliminate these differences, you'd have to apply severe social and political pressure. That would be problem, because it would limit people's freedom to choose what they want to do.
    – Marco13
    Jun 16, 2020 at 1:05
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    How often do math problems "benefit gender minorities"? Jun 16, 2020 at 7:21
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    @AnonymousPhysicist It's important to distinguish between 1. calling it a problem when there is discrimination against(!) certain people based on aspects that are not relevant for their competence in the respective field (like gender for mathematics), and 2. depicting mere demographic differences in a certain field as a "problem". The latter is is plainly wrong. Yes, you did not say this - you just vaguely talked about a ~"problem with demographics". As such, my comments here are urgent requests for clarification: Demographic differences are not a problem per se.
    – Marco13
    Jun 16, 2020 at 13:02
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    This is not splitting hairs. These things are the opposite of each other: When a demographic difference is "the problem", then every attempt to eliminate it would plainly be incompatible with the idea of equal opportunities. If unjust discrimination is "the problem", then eliminating it would be tantamount to trying to give everybody equal opportunities. The difference matters, and it matters a lot.
    – Marco13
    Jun 16, 2020 at 14:23

This can be answered with a pretty simple question:

Are the PIs the best people for the job?

If they are, then, quite frankly, there is nothing that needs "fixing" (at least in terms of this particular proposal, you may have wider problems in your field but they aren't your problem alone to solve and I digress).

If they aren't, then you should look at who is and have them on the project instead.

Whatever you do, don't add a female PI who isn't qualified or suitable for the position just to please the reviewer. It's not helpful and is actually rather patronizing and offensive. Also, dropping a PI just because they're a man and you need a woman is discrimination in and of itself.

Tokenism is just another form of sexism

In the long-term, it might be worth analysing the root causes of why the 5 best people all happen to be men.

However, that's not relevant for this proposal and isn't going to be a short-term fix. I'd suggest you write a letter to the reviewer indicating that you believe the 5 PIs are the best people for the position and leave it at that.

  • 3
    I think a response that does not address diversity at all is unlikely to help the applicant more than not responding. Jun 16, 2020 at 1:20
  • 14
    I would suggest that a reply stating that the PIs are the best people for the job and that the researchers don't wish to engage in tokenism is addressing diversity. Jun 16, 2020 at 8:03
  • 10
    Personally, I think saying the PIs are the best 5 people for the job implies that you don't want to engage in tokenism. However, you may disagree. Jun 16, 2020 at 8:12
  • 5
    @AnonymousPhysicist : This does address diversity. The "quite frankly" comment is one way. Addressing tokenism, a diversity-handling strategy that may be at least somewhat likely to be considered, is another way. Perhaps the poster addressed diversity in a way that doesn't seem favorable to you (addressed in the way you want), but in my opinion, it wasn't unaddressed.
    – TOOGAM
    Jun 16, 2020 at 12:01
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    @AnonymousPhysicist aye it does... It points out that if you have the best people for the job in the position, then that's that. You've made your diversity considerations and that's perfectly practical. If you don't then you reassess and pick the best 5. How does that not answer the question? Jun 16, 2020 at 16:41

I once submitted a math paper to a top 5 journal, and when the reports came back the referee said that it was more appropriate for the next tier because 1) It only constructs one object which was already predicted to exist and 2) It uses an extensive computer calculation. These were undoubtedly true facts about the paper, and certainly it'd be a stronger paper if it constructed a family of objects or if it didn't require a computer. Nonetheless, it was a very good paper, and there was nothing we could do to address either of these criticisms. We'd thought a lot about whether we could make either of those improvements and we couldn't. 10 years later I still think about whether we can fit that object into a family and I still can't do it, 10 years later I still think about whether there's a less computational approach and there still isn't. Nonetheless, despite there being nothing we could do to address the criticisms, they rejected the paper because top 5 journals have plenty of great papers and can afford to reject your excellent paper because of valid criticisms that you can't do anything about.

All of this is just to say that you should really seriously think about their criticism and see whether you can address it in a productive and substantive way, and if you conclude that you can't do so, then you need to accept that they might reject the proposal simply because they have other proposals that are just as good and which also broaden participation of women in your field. Next time you have an idea for a proposal think about including women co-PIs earlier in the process and maybe you can find a different local maximum (somewhat different subject, different direction of collaboration, different mode of collaboration) which avoids the drawback identified in this proposal. By all means follow Anonymous Physicists excellent suggestions and maybe they will fund the proposal, but in the end it comes down to their judgement and all you're really owed here is that they explain their judgement and that this judgement be based on accurate and valid reasons. In this case they've identified a valid criticism and communicated it to you, and ultimately it's their judgement call.


I do not see how the problem can be solved without adding a female researcher in the project. It is quite difficult to tell the way, however, without knowing the field and the day-to-day modus operandi. I would not be as hesitant as the OP in asking colleagues from other universities or internal PhD students or post-docs, given some familiarity. A PhD student might be quite willing to contribute to add the grant in her CV (a very competitive asset), while a post-doc or academic might be interested in forming working relations through a side-project. In that light, the payment, duties etc are negotiable - they might actually prefer a low commitment involvement that includes drafting, writing, some statistical analysis, data collection etc. The OP will never know without asking and grunt work is not the same as a token name on the poject. I would explore the OP's second option more thoroughly, but have no opinion on the amount or type of compensation the female researcher can be provided.

It is also a bit of a long-shot and probably not workable, but can't a PhD/ post-doc hire be fast-tracked and be tied to the project somehow? Is there any way that is feasible, legal and not morally questionable given the circumstances?

All the above are subject to the type of work the project implies (lab work, experiments, everything can turn online without too many problems etc).


There are correct answers, politically correct answers, and answers that get you funded expeditiously. The last one of those is: yes, add someone for token, and allocate minimal funds for her. A math project should focus on solving the math problems.

  • 13
    No no no. It will be obvious and it won't get you funded.
    – Buffy
    Jun 14, 2020 at 14:16
  • 17
    This is a terrible and unuseful answer, I don't understand why it has been upvoted
    – Kai
    Jun 14, 2020 at 15:07
  • 14
    No no no. It’s unethical (but it’s not at all obvious to me that it won’t get you funded. Then again robbing a bank will also get you funded but that doesn’t mean it’s something you should do).
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 14, 2020 at 16:25
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    @Neinstein A token PI. No funding, no work, and a free dinner with every project meeting. Of course no sensible prof will give her name for that if there isn´t a very good explanation why she´s added to the team list. In which case she should likely have been on there before.
    – Karl
    Jun 14, 2020 at 17:56
  • 15
    While this would be a morally bad thing to do, this is a good answer since this is how it often happens in reality.
    – user111388
    Jun 15, 2020 at 9:22

If I see you have five PIs, all male, there are three possibilities: Pure chance, or you don’t want women on your team, or there are not enough female candidates (after all, they might have all gone to better teams).

In the first two cases you should know how to fix the problem. Although removing someone from the team for being male looks like illegal discrimination as well.

In the latter case, check which qualified women there are, and why they are not on your team. If you can reply “there are 7 qualified women. #1 works on X. #2 works on Y etc.” that should help. And obviously add that the number of qualified women is outside your control.

  • 14
    "after all, they might have all gone to better teams". is kind of an insult Jun 15, 2020 at 14:48

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