Women in Science

Beyond #TimHunt — ignoring gender in science is also costly and harmful

Gender Summit Asia-Pacific will explore why diversity is essential to science and society

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Scientists and journalists were shocked last week by Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt’s comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists that women should stay out of labs because “they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” These comments have cost the English biochemist his position at University College London (UCL), but ignoring gender dimensions in science are also costly and socially harmful.

This event in Seoul, Republic of Korea, shows that sexist attitudes remain at the top of science. But the upcoming Gender Summit 6 Asia Pacific 2015, also to be held in Seoul August 26 to 28, will present evidence of how gendered innovations in research, development and business are vital not only for science, but for all of society.

Heisook Lee, PhDAfter attending the luncheon where Sir Tim Hunt spoke, Prof. Heisook Lee, Gender Summit 6 Asia Pacific Co-Chair and President of Korea’s Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET), said:

By making these comments, Sir Tim Hunt has overlooked the talents of girls and women in science, but also the fact that sex and gender bias in research is costly and harmful. Sir Hunt’s speech shows that some eminent scientists like him have never been exposed to issues on gender diversity or gendered innovations at all. These discussions should reach all scientists, if not, we risk losing female science talents, and risk having imperfect research outcomes that do not consider both genders.

Professor Hunt's display of benevolent sexism is unfortunately not unique to him, or in science. However, the instant and widespread response to his comments brings hope that a change is happening in society.

He recommends single sex labs, which is naive and wrong on so many levels. Labs populated by men produce knowledge and innovations with outcomes better for men than for women. This is a fact: examples include speech recognition software, crash test dummies, drugs, stem cells, organ transplants, medical diagnostic devices. Science is done not by a single individual but by teams, and research shows that gender balance in a team improves collective intelligence of the team. Having women in the lab contributes to scientific diversity and inclusion of ideas, better communication, less dogmatic practices, and more socially responsive outcomes.

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All these aspects help make science knowledge more robust and innovation more sustainable. I would advise Prof. Hunt to come to Gender Summit events and see for himself the overwhelming research evidence showing the many important ways in which gender can impact on the quality of research and innovation.

Why is gender critical in R&D?

To participate in the Gender Summit 6 - Asia Pacific

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Gender Summit 6 - Asia-Pacific 2015: Better Science & Technology for Creative Economy: Enhancing the Societal Impact through Gendered Innovations in Research, Development and Business will be August 26-28 in Seoul, South Korea. Register here

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To follow on social media

On Twitter, follow @gendersummit and use the hashtag #GS6AsiaPacific. You can also connect through Facebook and LinkedIn.

Gendered Innovations occur when sex and gender are properly considered in R&D. On the other hand, ignoring these dimensions and allowing sex and gender bias to remain with “male” as the norm in scientific research is harmful and expensive. This has been recorded by the Stanford project on Gendered Innovations, which notes that eight out of 10 drugs withdrawn from the market in the US between 1997 and 2000 because of life-threatening effects were more dangerous to women than to men.

Gender bias can also prevent recognition of new market opportunities. In engineering, not considering “out-of-position” drivers, for instance, can contribute to greater risk of injury in car accidents for short people, affecting many women but also men.

Including gender as a driver for intellectual creativity can add value to research and engineering by ensuring quality outcomes and enhancing sustainability. Gendered Innovations also add value to society by making research more responsive to social needs. Finally, they add value to business by developing new patents, technologies and markets for science knowledge.

The Gender Summits, established in Europe in 2011, are a platform for scientists, policy makers and gender scholars to examine new research on when, why and how gender issues impact on research and innovation outcomes. They aim to create consensus on where improvements are needed and who should take action. To date, there have been five Summits in Europe, North America, and Africa bringing together over 2000 participants and 400 contributors from over 50 countries, representing expertise and leadership in policy, gender scholarship, science decision making and industry. More are planned for the near future with the next one being in Seoul August 26-28. 

Gender issues in the Asia-Pacific region

Asia-Pacific is a large, dynamic and complex region spanning from Mongolia to New Zealand, with capacity and potential for gendered innovations varying from country to country. Differences in cultures, women’s status, development, as well as R&D investment, make for a rich tapestry of situations.

Korea, for example, currently spends a higher proportion of its GDP on R&D than any country, but has the second lowest female R&D participation of all OECD countries, above only Japan. Korea spent $65,395 million on R&D (4.36 percent of GDP) in 2012, but only 19 percent of those working in Science and Technology R&D were women that year.

Meanwhile, some Southeast Asian countries have high female participation matched with low R&D investment. Countries also have different priorities for utilizing gender focused technologies for sustainable socioeconomic development. Each country faces different challenges in promoting gender-sensitive research and innovations, as well as greater gender balance in STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine). However, there are also shared gender concerns where by collaborating together, countries can learn from each other to better use their resources.

The summit is being organized by the Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET), along with the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF), Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning (KISTEP), and the initiator of the Gender Summits, Portia, UK.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Elizabeth Pollitzer, PhDDr. Elizabeth Pollitzer is co-founder and 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.

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