Gender Summit to focus on how gender affects scientific research

Scientists and policymakers are recognizing that research and innovation need the knowledge that comes from involving women

The Author

[caption align="alignright"]Elizabeth PollitzerElizabeth Pollitzer, PhD[/caption]Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer is director of Portia Ltd., a London-based nonprofit organization focused on improving gender equality in science and inclusion of gender dimension in research and innovation content.

She has served as "architect" of the Gender Summit since its inception in 2011, guiding its focus on gender issues in research and innovation and helping to bring together the scientists, policy makers, gender scholars and others groups in the science system).

In 2011, Portia Ltd. received a $130,000 grant from the Elsevier Foundation New Scholars program for its Scenario Toolkit for Advancing Careers in Science. [divider]

During the last 10 years, the number of female PhD graduates in Europe has been growing at twice the rate of that of men, with 49% of PhD degrees being now awarded to women. In the US it is 50%. On this trend, there will be soon more highly educated women in society than men. During this time, however, the number of women reaching top academic positions has remained stubbornly below 20%, and in innovation areas, just 8% of patent applications submitted to the European Patent Office come from women.

While we have missed opportunities to utilize female talent, the dearth of women in science goes further. Historically women were excluded from studies as researchers, subjects and beneficiaries; as a result, science has much more evidence for men than for women, and this has raised the issue of unequal benefit that women gain from research compared to men.

These realizations have driven Europe's policy makers to demand that gender dimension is integrated into research and innovation content and process, which is needed to improve research quality and to open up new markets for science knowledge. From stem cells to transportation and climate change, the new thinking on gender issues in science is that sex and gender – that is, biological and socio-cultural considerations – can matter a lot.

The change in the attitudes to gender issues in science over the last few years has been prompted by showing scientists and policy makers the overwhelming body of evidence — scattered at present across a wide range of research journals and in need of a better "home" — on how the differences between women and men can impact research outcomes starting at cell level and continuing to social relationships.

The concern that the quality and efficacy of research and innovation may be reduced has generated new interest in gender issues as scientists started to realize that the "male as the norm" approach to study design is inappropriate in many cases – for example, in the effects of environmental pollutants, metabolic processes, many diseases, voice recognition, car design and team work.

Scientists have also started to recognize that not only have gender differences been overlooked as a research variable but that they have also often been unreported or underreported. Until very recently, hardly any science journal required that authors spell out if they have for example used only male or only female cells or animals in their investigations, or both. This situation is beginning to change now, and a number of journals, including The Lancet, have changed their policy to ensure that researchers report on the effects of the gender dimension in their area of study.

The Gender Summit

Gender Summit3 North America

The Gender Summit3 North America (#GS3NA) is November 13 to 15 in Washington, DC. For more information and to register, click on the banner or visit

Enabling these changes in the attitudes to gender issues in science has been the platform of the Gender Summit, launched in Europe in 2011. Its mission is to bring together the scientists, policy makers and gender scholars to review the evidence and reach consensus on what changes are needed to make science knowledge making and its place in society equally responsive to the needs of both women and men.

The first two summits attracted 400 participants each – a record for a gender conference in Europe.  But more importantly, the summit had a direct impact on policy, leading to the inclusion of a specific consideration regarding gender in the European Commission's next six-year program for research (Horizon 2020), which will require the integration of the gender dimension in research and innovation content and gender equality actions in research projects.

The third summit will take place on November 13 to 15 in Washington, DC, under the leadership of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The focus is on North America, and joining the NSF in defining the aims and the program of this summit are other major North American research funders, who are also  supporting and participating in the event, including  the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the  National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT) in Mexico.

One of the aims is to create a "Roadmap" for action that different stakeholder groups will implement. For this, the three-day event will include 100 speakers and over 30 sessions covering every aspect of gender and diversity in research and innovation, from gender-sensitive study content and process design to development of human capital, and implications for policy and markets, applicable to institutions, science fields and global societal challenges.

The program and speakers can be seen at The Roadmap will focus on 10 major topics where evidence strongly indicates that action is needed to improve how science is done, applied and communicated, and how women's place in research and innovation can be brought much closer to that enjoyed by men.

The Roadmap will define specific milestones and actions in areas such as:

  • Cultivating and promoting leaders
  • Empowering the voices of early-career scientists
  • Improving innovation through diversity
  • Improving career-life balance
  • Creating and sustaining networks
  • Transforming the role of gender in STEM and communication
  • Ensuring inclusive excellence through merit/peer review
  • Enabling organizational systems and processes
  • Creating bridges with European players
  • Expanding the lead established by the pioneers of gender equality and diversity in science.

There are, of course, other pressing issues that the summit will also address, where perhaps not the differences but the needs of women stand out as historically overlooked, where their voices have been, until now, largely ignored –for example in transportation, climate change and environmental sustainability.

What does gender have to do with auto safety testing?

For example, as more women work, more women travel and become involved in fatal crashes. But cars are tested on male crash test dummies only. General Motors has developed some 200 crash-test dummies, which are also used by other care manufacturers, but they are all some variations in size of the principal male model. But women are not scaled down men and this is important to understanding and mitigating the different ways that women and men are impacted by a collision. Three things happen: the car collides with another car or an obstacle; the person inside the car collides with the inside of the car (e.g. the steering wheel), and then the organs within the body collide with the walls of the body (e.g., the brain hits the scull).

A hard car seat acts like a trampoline and can magnify the impact of these collisions. Women have smaller organs and fewer muscles around the neck and torso and have greater risk of suffering injury. In fact, a study of the US traffic data over the decade between 1998 and 2008 showed that female drivers are underrepresented in fatal or serious injury motor vehicle crashes. The odds for a belt-restrained female driver sustaining severe injuries are 47% higher than those for a belt-restrained male driver involved in a comparable crash (

What does gender have to do with climate change?

In the area of climate change, the scale of action needed to mitigate the effects of the transformations and avoid widespread human and natural catastrophe is such that we cannot rely on technological solutions alone. However, because men dominate the core debates in areas related to energy, transportation, waste management and industry, the focus of mitigation policies tends to be more technological than behavioural. Many of the technological changes and instruments that have been proposed look for 'big' solutions and bypass women's input completely. They leave untouched the very structures in society that have contributed to climate change and energy problems. Behavioural change should be given at least an equal attention, together with the environment in which technological change is being developed, including impacts related to agricultural production; food security; health; water and energy resources; climate-induced migration and conflict; and climate-related natural disasters. Women have been shown to suffer more negatively than man the impacts of climate change in terms of their assets and wellbeing because of social and cultural norms controlling gender roles.

It is conventional wisdom, for example, that it is possible to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution, improve health outcomes, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the rural areas of developing countries through the adoption of improved cooking stoves. However, promoting use of the "better" ovens has not produced the expected results, according to a 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study followed the introduction of more efficient ovens in the rural region of Orissa, one of the poorest places in India, Researchers tracked household behavior for up to four years after families received the stove, and found no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and no change in fuel consumption. The assumption that these effects will happen made on the basis of laboratory tests were not fulfilled in practice because the households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately largely because no effort was made when introducing the better stoves to train the women and men in their maintenance. With women's role seen as the cook and with the men difficult to reach because of the long hours spend in the field, the usage rates declined as the women reverted to the simpler older cooking methods, even though this meant that more fuel was used.

One of the reasons women's voices have been left out of the discussions on climate change and energy is that most economic analyses stop at the level of the household and do not follow up on who is within or in charge, what power relationships govern the household behavior, who makes decisions and has the right to make changes. It is for this reason – and because women are severely underrepresented in engineering and technological spheres – that women's voices have been largely ignored in the decision processes on finding solutions to the grand challenges facing societies in the 21st Century.

This is why the aim set by the NSF for the 3rd Gender Summit is to raise awareness of the importance of addressing gender issues in science knowledge-making throughout the continuum of the process, starting with research ideas and ending in using science knowledge to benefit the society, economy and environment.

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