As a scientist, I'm trained to look for biases that can cause unreliable results. This is why I feel so disheartened every time I read about scientific studies that fail to take sex and gender differences into account.
These differences, and the work of Londa Schiebinger, PhD, a Stanford professor of the history of science, were the focus of a recent Stanford Report article. In the piece, Schiebinger, who directs the Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment, explains that ignoring the biological differences between males and females is a form of gender bias that can have catastrophic results:
...Experiments done in women may not have been tested first in female mice or rats — "a potentially dangerous situation," Schiebinger said.
Recent studies have shown that 80 percent of rodent drug studies are conducted using male models. This means that not only are females left out, but that research sees nothing unique to females in the initial stages of research.
"We're missing the opportunity to build our foundation of knowledge of just about every biological system more accurately at the outset, which should be a fundamental goal of science," said Marcia Stefanick, research professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center and of obstetrics and gynecology and co-director of the Gendered Innovations project.
Incorporating gender and sex differences in the design of a scientific study is not only good science, it can make the end product more effective. Shiebinger's latest endeavor is to help scientists understand when and how to address gender biases in their research. This goal is the focus of a new initiative she's leading with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission.
Shiebinger admits that there's much work to do, but her efforts, and those of others in the field, are paying off. As mentioned in the piece, the EU Research and Innovation program last winter identified 137 fields of science and technology that could be improved by gender analysis. "...Eyes have been opened – and we will not return to a world that ignores gender," Shiebinger said.
Previously: A look at NIH’s new rules for gender balance in biomedical studies, Why it's critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments, Stanford Gendered Innovations program offers tools for improving scientific research, Study shows many heart devices receive FDA approval without adequate testing on women and Women underrepresented in heart studies
Photo by Daniel Pozo