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Adding Sex-and-Gender Dimensions to Your Research


In recent decades, policymakers, research organizations, and funders of science have made efforts to increase the participation of women in science teams, leadership roles, and evaluation panels. More recently, journals and funders have turned their attention to sex-and-gender aspects of the content of research. Early-career scientists have much to gain from embracing this trend, including an increased chance of getting published and an edge when applying for research funds.

But embracing the trend requires a shift in the way research is done. First, scientists must recognize that including a sex or gender dimension in their research is possible and useful. Then they must use adequate methods to design their studies, analyze their data, and report their results. This is likely to require extra time and resources, but researchers promoting the initiative argue it is worth the effort. "It's a really powerful way to see new things," says Londa Schiebinger, a science historian at Stanford University in California.  Schiebinger directs a project called "Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment." Funded by Stanford University, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the European Commission, among others, the project aims to encourage and equip scientists to rethink their work under a sex-and-gender-conscious lens.

"It's about learning the scientific method." —Londa Schiebinger

Gender push

Schiebinger and other scholars began to highlight gender bias in scientific research in the late 1980s. Later, policymakers started paying attention to the issue. In the early 2000s, for example, the European Commission pledged to engender research and gave its scientific officers guidelines on how to include gender concerns in E.U.-funded projects. Under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which started in 2007, application forms included an optional box that applicants could fill in to show how their work addresses sex and gender. About one fifth of FP7 projects developed these aspects in their research—a proportion that ranged from 0% in space research to 52% in socioeconomic sciences and humanities. During that time, the commission also funded a project called genSET - Gender in Science, which became an important part of the European push to address sex and gender to improve research 
quality. (The program continues today, run by a nonprofit company called Portia that was set up by a group of female scientists at Imperial College London.)

Londa Schiebinger

Londa Schiebinger


Courtesy of Londa Schiebinger
Londa Schiebinger

The European Commission has gone a step further with its new funding program, Horizon 2020, which starts this year, making the rules for sex-and-gender inclusion stricter and more explicit, a European Commission official says. In its work programs for 2014 and 2015, the commission has flagged specific topics—16% of all listed areas, including, for example, archeology, space medicine, and vehicle engineering—in which applicants for funding are required to describe how they will take sex and gender into account. The remaining 84% of researchers may find that addressing sex and gender (where appropriate) gives their research proposal a welcome edge over other applicants, the official adds.

The European Commission is not alone in its effort to push the gender dimension. The Irish Research Council (IRC), for example, now requires researchers to address sex and gender in their work. "We want to see our funded researchers consider whether gender is a variable relevant to their research and, if it is, how they should respond," said IRC Chair Orla Feely, as she launched a gender equality plan in December 2013. "This will not only increase the potential impact of the research, but it will also improve the ability of Irish-based researchers to compete in international schemes where consideration of gender is increasingly a factor." Research funders in the United States (including the National Institutes of Health, with its policy for the inclusion of women and minorities as subjects in clinical research), Canada, Norway, and Spain have adopted similar policies.

A growing number of scientific journals also now require sex- or gender-specific reporting. These tend to be publications that specialize in biomedical sciences, such as The Lancet, PLOS Biology, and PLOS Medicine. (Science does not currently have a specific policy in this area). Schiebinger says scientists are beginning to understand that sex and gender are important factors, and they can "bring change wherever they are"—including editorial boards or hiring committees.

Why sex matters

Beyond boosting their chances of getting a job, publication, or grant, including sex-and-gender concerns may provide a decisive advantage for early-career scientists by prompting more in-depth, interesting, and socially relevant research questions. The Gendered Innovations website offers case studies ranging from sex differences in stem cell characteristics to assistive technologies for aging men and women.

In some areas, the inclusion of sex-and-gender variables can be a matter of life and death, Schiebinger says. Of the 10 prescription drugs that were withdrawn from the U.S. market between 1997 and 2000, four were found to pose greater health risks for women—including two widely prescribed antihistaminic drugs that could cause a potentially fatal irregular heartbeat. "Women have a higher incremental risk of suffering an arrhythmia after taking these drugs than do men probably because (1) the interval between heart muscle contractions is naturally longer for women than for men and (2) male sex hormones moderate the heart muscle's sensitivity to these drugs," the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) concluded in 2001.

Ultimately, Schiebinger says, including sex and gender in research projects is just good scientific and ethical practice. "It's about learning the scientific method. Sex and gender are variables among many others that researchers can study," and excellent research doesn't systematically leave out particular variables.

Getting involved

"Sex-and-gender analysis applies broadly to anything with a human endpoint," Schiebinger says. This includes many areas in the biological sciences and any area of engineering with a human user or interface. Sex is also relevant in animal studies. "It's far more illuminating if you set out to compare the sexes," says Paul Fowler, a professor of developmental biology at the Institute of Medical Sciences of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. "You may think an organ like the liver is the same regardless of sex, but that's not actually true. During development, the liver expresses androgen receptors. Female and male livers are not exactly the same and people sometimes forget that."

Paul Fowler

Paul Fowler

Courtesy of Paul Fowler

Courtesy of Paul Fowler
Paul Fowler

Schiebinger says she would like to see "all the mainstream textbooks and curricula" incorporate sex-and-gender analysis—but what can current early-career researchers do to fill this hole in their educations?

Start by learning the definitions. "People often get sex and gender mixed up" and should be careful not to use the terms interchangeably, Schiebinger says. (The Gendered Innovations website defines sex as a biological quality while gender is a socio-cultural process).

Then scientists need to become familiar with the various methods of sex-and-gender analysis as they consider their research priorities, formulate concepts, determine standards or models, design studies, or analyze and report data. Gendered Innovations provides state-of-the-art methods that cover all research stages. For instance, the website encourages researchers to free their language and data visualizations from gender assumptions that could prevent new ideas from emerging. While zoologists, for example, often refer to herds of animals as "harems," "researchers who questioned that notion found that female mustangs range from band to band, often mating with a stallion of their choice," the website notes.

Gendered Innovations offers a range of other online resources and holds training workshops in the United States and Europe. Under FP7, the European Commission also funded a project called "Gender in EU-funded Research," which provides a practical toolkit for scientists, including ready-made checklists to help researchers make sure that they have asked themselves the right sex- and gender-relevant questions at all stages of planning, research, and dissemination. Other like-minded endeavors are underway, such as the European Gender Medicine project, which was launched in October 2013 to design guidelines and teaching materials on sex and gender in order to improve the treatment of major chronic diseases.

Scientists who receive Horizon 2020 funding will be able to use that money to pay for formal training. For now, however, opportunities remain sparse, so scientists should seek guidance from a supervisor or collaborator. "There is now a critical mass of people who know how to do [sex-and-gender analysis] and actualize it in the laboratory," Schiebinger says. Early-career scientists should also seek advice on statistical analysis when designing studies, Fowler says.

Getting their superiors onboard is likely to be another challenge for some early-career scientists. University deans, provosts, and department heads may need to be convinced to " 'buy into' the importance of the gender dimension within knowledge making," GenSET wrote in 2010.
 To make the case, a panel of scientists gathered by GenSET recommended relying on concrete examples of how incorporating these methods leads to better research.

While it's important to consider sex and gender in many areas of research, Gendered Innovations highlights the risk of overdoing it. For instance, some companies market female-specific knee implants but may overlook other factors, such as a patient's height or ethnicity, that play an important role in getting a good prosthesis fit.

Another disadvantage is that including both sexes in animal studies requires larger numbers of animals and can drive up costs. But, ultimately, a lot of data are potentially lost when sex is not included as a study variable, Fowler reasons. "My argument would be that if you're studying just one sex, you're junking data and wasting animals."

A scientist may purposefully decide to focus only on one sex, but problems arise "when the researcher has consciously ignored sex and/or gender as a valid variable or has not realised that a sex and/or gender dimension is relevant to their research," the IRC writes in its Gender Strategy and Action Plan 2013-2020. "In this instance, extrapolation of the results to the population as a whole, when they actually only apply to half the population, is misleading and could have serious implications."

At the very least, young scientists should "keep an open mind with the literature, reading a bit more widely than they thought they might," Fowler advises. "Even if you do a Ph.D. or postdoc on a specific sex, a knowledge that the world doesn't end at that point will help."

Top Image: Distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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