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Sex matters: Stanford researchers tackle biology, sociology and health

I had such a good time writing my story for the most recent Stanford Medicine magazine, which tackles critical questions about the role of sex and gender in biology and health care. I got to explore the topic to my heart's desire with world leaders in the field, such as Marcia Stefanick, PhD, who directs the Stanford Women and Sex Differences in Medicine Center, or WSDM (pronounced “wisdom”), and science historian Londa Schiebinger, PhD, the former director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

I also got to meet graduate student Amy Braun, shown above. She is as delightful as she is passionate about the need to not just include more women, and more female lab animals, in both clinical and basic research projects. One critically important starting point, she told me, is to get the language right. Even whip-smart researchers fall prey to the (false) idea that that second X chromosome confers some ineffable degree of biological variability that would render even the most carefully constructed experiments impossible to interpret. They also often resort to sloppy terminology. As Braun explained to me:

We need to debunk the myth that females are mysteriously complex and we need to increase the literacy around the concepts of sex and gender. They are not the same. Frankly, I think a lot of researchers just don’t want to say the word ‘sex.’ ‘Gender’ is more comfortable, and more fancy-sounding.

Differentiating between sex and gender is important because gender, in particular, exists on a continuum that we are only just beginning to understand. As Stefanick explained:

We don’t know how to measure gender. Sex is generally assigned at birth, based on external genitalia, after which a broad range of biological, particularly reproductive, sex differences are assumed. Individuals are then, usually, forced into a binary model of gender — with distinct masculine and feminine categories — when the possibilities are much broader and more expansive.

Stefanick and Schiebinger argue that gender is a point on a continuum with infinitesimal gradations. Together they are developing a way to measure gender in such a way that it can be accurately correlated to health outcomes. If successful, their approach could transform how medicine is practiced.

Intrigued? If so, I hope you'll check out the article.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on sex, gender and medicine, A journey of identity: Stanford Children's gender clinic helps families navigate and Research for All: Congressional bill aims to bring gender equality to medical research
Photo by Lenny Gonzalez

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