Al Rawiya

Closing the Funding Gap: Challenges Faced by Female STEM Researchers

Sliman Mansour, The Immigrant, oil on canvas, 2017.

As I embarked on my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Birzeit University in 2014, I was struck by the under-representation of women in my field. In a class of over 70 students, I was one of just four women. I faced persistent stereotypes and dismissive comments from both my peers and faculty members. Comments like “This is not a career for girls” and “You’ll be working in a garage your whole life’’ were normalized in the engineering space. The competitive and high-pressure culture within the program also made it difficult for many students to succeed. As a result, I became determined to advocate for increased representation of women in STEM and higher education.


However, when I later began my PhD journey in the United Kingdom, I encountered a significant obstacle in securing funding for my studies. Despite reaching out to various institutes, grants, fellowships, and scholarships, I was unable to secure the necessary funds for tuition and living expenses, and I ultimately launched a crowdfunding campaign. The skepticism and criticism I faced during this process highlighted the myth of meritocracy in funding opportunities for researchers. Through my experience, I questioned whether funding opportunities are truly designed to provide equal opportunities for male and female researchers, or if they are instead perpetuating systemic biases and inequalities.


In Plato’s The Republic, he posits that society can only achieve true harmony and progress when philosophers, who possess knowledge and wisdom, hold political power. He argues that until this occurs, political power and philosophy will remain separate and society will continue to suffer from various ills. This idea raises questions on whether our institutions – educational, funding or government related – are designed to align with the concept of individuals being ranked according to their inherent abilities and talents. Some may argue that in academia, meritocracy is held as a sacred principle. However, there are numerous misconceptions surrounding research and funding, as well as significant gender disparities present in academia. These issues call into question whether our institutions are truly promoting and utilizing the talents of all individuals, regardless of their inherent abilities, or if they are instead perpetuating systemic biases and inequalities.


The process of applying for a PhD in a STEM field typically begins with identifying a research opportunity at an academic institution. This can be done by searching for open positions on the institution’s website, reaching out to potential supervisors, or networking with current or former graduate students. Once a research opportunity has been identified, the student must reach out to the senior researcher responsible for the project and express their interest in joining the team. The next step is typically an interview with the senior researcher, during which the student’s qualifications, research experience, and fit within the project are evaluated. The senior researcher will then decide  to approve or reject the application. However, this process becomes more complex when a student wishes to pursue an individual project. In this case, the student must find a researcher with expertise in their field of interest and secure funding independently.


When I chose to launch a crowdfunding campaign to fund my PhD, I often faced questions about why I didn’t apply for fellowships instead. While funding for a PhD can come from a variety of sources, such as grants, government funds, and self-funding, the process of obtaining funding through these sources can be different for female researchers. As highlighted in the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, studies from around the world have consistently shown that female students and academics are less likely to receive funding, be granted meetings with professors, be offered mentoring, or secure a job when compared to their male counterparts. This leads to the under-representation of women in STEM fields, where few women are able to lead their own research.


Applying for grants and fellowships can be a time-consuming process, which in turn is a significant barrier for researchers, particularly for those with limited resources. The time required to complete an application can vary depending on a number of factors such as complexity of the application, amount of research required, availability of letters of recommendation, and number of revisions needed. Furthermore, networking and building relationships with potential collaborators and funding organizations – which include governments, hedge funds, and research facilities-  can also take additional time. Scientists spent 42 percent of their “research time” on administrative tasks. These tasks were split between pre-grant (22 percent) and post-grant work (20 percent). The three tasks cited as the most onerous were filling out grant progress reports, hiring personnel, and managing laboratory finances. This time commitment can be a significant burden for researchers, especially when considering the already demanding workload that researchers have.


I myself reached out to over 100 institutes, fellowship programs, scholarship programs, and grants bodies designed to support STEM research. Out of the 100, I received 30 responses, and only three were able to help me secure funding for my first year. Dealing with rejection can be difficult, especially when it comes in succession. It takes a toll on one’s motivation and confidence, and it can be especially hard to keep going when it feels like every door is closed. This was made even more challenging for me as I had to balance my full-time research and part-time job as a Graduate Teacher Assistant.


Nationality also plays a huge role in securing research positions in STEM. Fellowships offered to women from the Global South  pursuing STEM fields are scarce and highly competitive. Although 57 percent of STEM graduates in the Middle East and North Africa region are women—higher than the U.S. and Europe—there are still major obstacles that prevent researchers from advancing their studies into the global market. Senior researchers often apply for the same fellowships as entry-level researchers, giving them an advantage due to their experience. As a Palestinian researcher in STEM starting her career, it can be challenging to compete for these fellowships against experienced researchers who have had more resources in their home country and institutions to succeed.


Self-funding a PhD through part-time work is an option for some candidates, but it is not without its challenges. The cost of one year of a PhD can be upwards of $50,000, divided between tuition fees and living expenses. Part-time work is often paid less per hour than full-time work and , high-level positions that offer job shares or flexible working hours are rare, so PhD students may have to work in jobs below their skill level to have the flexibility to study and work at the same time. This can be even more difficult for female researchers. In the UK, for example, the hourly pay gap between men and women working part-time is 32 percent. Using the median hourly pay for full-time  employees at £14 per hour, and £9.12 per hour for part-time employees as an example, a part-time female researcher would have to work an average of 15 years to raise the required amount for four years of a PhD program in the United Kingdom. Funding complications and biases can prevent female researchers from fully realizing the benefits of conducting their own research. This can result in female researchers not being able to publish papers, and having to fill the gap of wages with teaching tasks,leading to overworked female researchers. Plato’s idea of a meritocratic society cannot be achieved when our systems deny female researchers equal opportunities.


The question remains whether funding organizations are doing enough to support and motivate female researchers to pursue their own independent research projects, so that society can actually progress. It is important for funding organizations and academic institutions to address these issues and to take steps to ensure that female researchers have equal access to funding opportunities. This could include implementing measures to address unconscious bias in the funding application process, increasing transparency in the selection process, and providing additional support and resources to female researchers. Additionally, it is important to continue to raise awareness about the challenges faced by female researchers and to work towards creating a more inclusive and equitable research environment.

Bayan Abusalameh is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, having previously obtained her MsC from QMUL. Her academic pursuits have been marked by a notable achievement, namely the design of a prototype of 1U CubeSat, which was intended to be the first Palestinian CubeSat. Despite beginning  her PhD studies without funding, Bayan embarked on a journey of securing financial support through crowdfunding and fellowships. Her commitment to promoting gender equality in academia, particularly in the engineering field, is evident in her advocacy for equal opportunities for female researchers. Bayan's efforts are driven by her belief that women are underrepresented in academia, and she is dedicated to addressing this issue.



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