Research teams with women are more likely to consider sex and gender


When women contribute to medical research, that research is more likely to include consideration of sex and gender, including the differences between how men and women respond to diseases and treatments, research finds .

The paper also explores the increased participation of women in medical research and the resulting quality of research in terms of accommodating diversity.

“If you don’t include sex and gender, you get serious errors.”

“If you have more women on the research team, especially in leadership positions, you get an increase in sex and gender analysis in research, or vice versa.” says Londa Schiebinger, a history of science professor at Stanford University.

The team, including Schiebinger and post-doc Mathias Nielsen, recently scoured medical research databases from 2008 to 2015 for studies that did and did not systematically consider sex and gender. They assigned genders to the authors of these studies based on first names and compared the diversity of authors to the inclusion of sex and gender in the research itself.

The more women there were among the authors of the article, in particular the first and main authors, the more likely the research was to consider sex and gender.

The cost of ignoring sex and gender

Sex, defined by chromosomes, hormones and physical differences, is often overlooked as a variable in medical research. In many clinical drug trials, for example, women have been excluded entirely – for reproductive safety, due to the potential for hormonal changes over time, or simply to homogenize the sample. Early research using animals often does not even report their sex, although behavior and response to treatments have since been shown to differ between males and females.

Gender, which applies to social roles that may be based on an individual’s sex or personal identification, also plays a role in health, as gender often plays into potential occupational risks as well as choices lifestyle like exercise and diet. Recovery from injury or illness has been linked to sex-related characteristics: for example, male individuals (male or female) tend to recover better from acute coronary syndrome than more female patients.

Ignoring these vital factors leads to a dangerous lack of knowledge about the health of the general population, according to Schiebinger.

“If you don’t include sex and gender, you get serious errors,” she says.

What pigeons show us about gender bias in science

These errors can be life-threatening: women often retain drugs in their bodies in higher concentrations than men, and they may react very differently to different doses of antidepressants and antipsychotics.

Meanwhile, the cost of creating, approving and bringing a new drug to market soared by more than $2.6 billion in 2015, so the failure of a drug to market also has a high economic price.

Better Representation, Better Research

In hopes of avoiding these pitfalls, the US National Institutes of Health and the European Commission, two important and influential sources of support, are now emphasizing gender and sex analysis as important elements of any publicly funded medical research. Both organizations also encourage the participation of women in research in general. The research team argues that the two ideas are symbiotic.

“There’s a symmetry between the two goals,” says Nielsen. “If we put more emphasis on gender and sex analysis, it could attract more women into research.”

Researchers can’t just screen drugs for male bodies

The researchers believe that it is possible that if female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender as variables in their research, it is also possible that upon entering the field, they will be attracted to areas of research where sex and gender are already considered important.

“Diversity and excellence in medical research are linked,” says Schiebinger. “We always think we have to fix women’s participation first and then we can fix the other issues, but they are really linked.”

The researchers report their findings in the journal Nature Human behavior.

Source: Vicky Stein for Stanford University


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