Why science is gender-biased — and what we can do about it

Speakers at Gender Summit Asia Pacific show how including women as research subjects can result in better, safer products

Dr. Heisook Lee, Co-chair of Gender Summit 6 Asia Pacific and the President of the Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET), writes about how the emerging field of “gendered innovations” — knowledge and science reached by considering sex and gender as variables at every stage of research — makes for more meaningful results.

Prof. Heisook Lee, PhD, speaks at the Gender Summit 6 Asia Pacific.By now, historical inequalities between women’s and men’s science participation are broadly known, if not yet overcome.

But many still don’t know that failing to consider sex and gender in the research itself is also limiting the benefits of today’s science. Most scientific research does not consider sex or gender as variables and treats male as the norm, resulting in different health and safety outcomes for women and men.

Evidence on this problem is quickly stacking up. The Gender Summit Asia Pacific in Seoul August 26 to 28 presented 38 new examples of gendered innovations in research. More than 500 participants from 32 countries and regions joined to discuss better science and technology through gendered innovations, with a focus on innovations that can spark more creative economies.

These are important terms that deserve attention. The “Creative Economy” cornerstone policy of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye should aim for an economy that allows and facilitates change, creating  jobs and new growth industries by tapping diverse human capital for better science and information and communications technology (ICT).

Upcoming Gender Summits

The knowledge, science and products we create when we consider sex and gender as variables in R&D are the gendered innovations that can help transform our economies in this way.  But to date, “male” has been the norm in the vast majority of scientific research; the use of male mice in experiments, man-sized crash test dummies, and the “reference man” used for setting radiation standards are but a few examples. Huge opportunities for sex- and gender-sensitive investigation as well as subsequent product and market creation remain untapped, not to mention the potential negative effects for female end users of the products of male-oriented processes.

At this Gender Summit, findings stemming from sex and gender perspectives ranged from differences in the way men and women process pain to gender-sensitive urban housing design.

Prof. Jeffrey Mogil, PhD, presents research that shows gender differences in pain processing.

For example, Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, who heads the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University in Montreal, presented research that shows that mediation of chronic pain processing in the spinal cord of male and female mice is radically different. New data from his lab demonstrates that different neural circuits, transmitters, receptors and genes may be relevant to pain processing in males and females.

The research of Dr. Sun-Young Rieh, professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Seoul, showed why rapidly changing gender roles must be considered in Korean Urban Public Rental Housing Guidelines. The housewives in aprons that illustrate the guidelines are no longer the only female demographic to consider. Single women’s safety issues such as designing communal facilities to be well-lit and in full view, and designing more adaptable room layouts that can be used for family, but also for sublets or study were mentioned.

Prof. Londa Schiebinger, PhD, talks about the importance of gendered innovations.

These studies and many others detailed on the Gendered Innovations website of Dr. Londa Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford University, show that gendered innovations are important. But what are we doing about this?

The Gender Summit 6 aimed to integrate considerations of gendered innovations into existing scientific networks. Rather than working in gender-focused silos, science policymakers, publishers, funders and most importantly the scientists themselves must integrate gendered innovations into their daily work.

What does this mean in practice? Ten key steps were outlined in the Seoul Declaration and Call to Actions– the outcome document of the Summit.  The first call to action is for a national and regional dialogue on common gender problems in science.

The Seoul Declaration

In Asia Pacific, the Seoul Declaration and Call for Actions aims to “advance gendered research, innovation and socioeconomic development in the Asia Pacific region.” To learn more and sign the declaration, here is the full text. For more information, you can also email the Gender Summit team.

We need to enable every researcher to ask whether, and in what sense, biological sex and gender differences are relevant to the objectives and methodology of their project.

Integrating such gendered innovations is not only responsible, it’s smart. Considering sex and gender creates fresh opportunities to develop new markets for science knowledge by advancing gendered innovation ecosystems. Such knowledge-creation processes can be constructed by making better use of the available female scientific and creative capital; conducting gender sensitive research; being mindful of the different interests and product needs of women and men.  That is to say, more women should take part in R&D, more R&D should consider sex and gender, in order to ensure the products and results of this R&D meet women’s needs equally to men’s.

These may involve, for instance, speech recognition products that recognize women’s voices as well as men’s or devices promoting healthy aging that are aware of lifestyle differences between men and women. There are also plenty of areas where core technologies can be improved. How will tomorrow’s service robots respond to the needs of female users? How can biomarker researchers take biological sex differences into account?

Heisook Lee, PhD (center) at a meeting with Astrid Linder, PhD, Research Director of Traffic Safety for the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (left) and Elizabeth Pollitzer, PhD, co-founder and Director of Portia Ltd and an architect of the Gender Summit.There is much more work to be done. It is time to agree on terminology, schema and models for representing the role and effects of biological sex and gender in scientific contexts. We need to start with the basics: for instance, when to use the term “sex” and when to use “gender” in study results.

The issue of gender diversity in STEM participation hasn’t disappeared either; efforts are still needed to involve more women in innovation. Evidence shows that:

  • Gender balance improves collective intelligence in teams.
  • Women outside the formal innovation circles contribute better solutions than others in “crowd sourcing” innovation
  • When experiments fail, women and men adopt different problem solving strategies.

Repeatedly, we see that gender diversity is not only the right thing but also the smart thing to do for effective STEM R&D.

The enthusiasm at the Gender Summit was encouraging.  This is an important region that is becoming one of the world's focal points in political, economic and scientific terms, also comprising 60 percent of the world population. We need to harness all talent in Asia Pacific in order to stimulate the region’s diverse economies, and that means women as well as men. Incorporating gendered innovations can also open new avenues of research, not to mention new markets.

Upcoming Gender Summits

The Gender Summits, started in Europe in 2011, are gaining momentum as a global movement. Following recent summits in Washington DC and Cape Town, we are looking forward to the GS7 Europe in Berlin November 6-7, and the GS8 North America in Mexico in April 2016. Following that, other summits are being planned in Japan, Canada and elsewhere in Europe.

Elsevier's role in the Gender Summits

Elsevier and the Elsevier Foundation's New Scholars program have been constant supporters of the Gender Summits from the first European event in 2011 and have played an instrumental role in making progress toward creating a global platform and community possible. But there is more to this relationship: Gender knowledge and new understanding of gender issues in science discussed at the summits has also influenced Elsevier’s own thinking on when, how and why gender issues matter to the company as a major actor and stakeholder in science endeavors. Some of the lessons learned and how they have been applied within Elsevier and the Foundation will be presented at the forthcoming Gender Summit 7 Europe as an example of the role that science publishers can play in advancing gender equality in research and in society.

— Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer, Co-founder and Director, Portia Ltd.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Heisook Lee, PhDDr. Heisook Lee is President of the Korea Center for WISET (Women in Science, Engineering and Technology) and co-chair of Gender Summit 6 Asia Pacific. Her mathematics research interests include algebraic coding theory and algebraic structures over commutative rings. Her current interests are human resource development in STEM fields and gender perspectives in science research.

She has served as Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Dean of Research Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School at Ewha University, Korea. She was also the founding Editor of Communications of the Korean Mathematical Society from 1986 to 1988 and the Chief Editor for the Journal of the Korean Mathematical Society from 1994 to 1996. She has served as a member of the Korean Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology, and of National Science and Technology Commission. Dr Lee was the founding director of the WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) Center in Korea and also served as president of Korea Federation of Women Scientists Associations from 2006 to 2007.

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