Sex in Science Yields Gendered Innovations

General Public

Consideration of sex and gender is woefully lacking in science and innovation today, says Londa Schiebinger, director of the Gendered Innovations project at Stanford University. Until recently, attention to these factors was focused on the problems of bias they could cause. But Dr. Schiebinger sees it in a different light: analyzing sex and gender differences provides new insight that leads to better research and important discoveries, across all fields of science, engineering and design.


“Analyzing sex and gender is not really part of a scientist’s education.” But it most certainly should be, according to Londa Schiebinger, Professor of History of Science at Stanford University. From drug development to product design, differences between males and females, both biologically and socio-culturally, are most often met with inattention on the part of the research community. Yet examples of how science and engineering have been enhanced by sex analysis are numerous. Through her work as director of the Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering project, Dr. Schiebinger is trying to shed light on this fact for scientists across a host of disciplines, and is developing the resources they’ll need to put it into practice.


Sex & Gender: Important Experimental Controls


“In the 1990s, people were anxious to identify problems (associated with analyzing sex differences) and how bias hurt science. I had this insight of turning it around: What kind of interesting new knowledge can you produce if you use insights from sex and gender analysis?” She coined the term “gendered innovations” to emphasize the potential of “exercising positive imagination. Let's not beat people over the head again for making a mistake. We want to show them they can avoid problems, create something new!” She says that companies are interested in this type of research, given that their goal is to design products for, and sell them to, as many people as possible, but, more importantly, gendered innovations is about improving science and opening the doors of possibility.

When researchers learn of Professor Schiebinger’s project, she witnesses “a lot of ah-ha moments.” By ignoring sex differences when designing experiments, they suddenly realize, they might be introducing error into their data. Take the example of drug testing. When this step in the development process is performed on male animals only, and generalized to all animals, that’s a problem for good science, Schiebinger explains. She cites the example of the ten drugs withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2000 due to life-threatening side effects. For eight of these, adverse reactions were more common in women than men. “If you're not doing your experiments on a variety of animals, male and female, and if you're not using a representative population in clinical trials, then the real clinical trial is when the drug is released on the market.”

The main hesitation she encounters from scientists regarding incorporating sex or gender analysis into their research is the added expense. But this pales in comparison to the alternative, Professor Schiebinger points out. In the example of drug testing, “the cost of a few more animals is nothing compared to the cost of a failed clinical trial. And the cost of a failed clinical trial is nothing compared to the billions of dollars for withdrawing drugs from the market.”

Including sex and gender analysis in science provides an extra experimental control that can save a great deal of trouble down the line. In addition to the importance of shoring up the basic methods of science, Londa Schiebinger underlines the possibilities that gender and sex analyses open up for constructive innovation. Without paying attention to these factors, “you might be missing something, and missing out on discovery.” Both motivations are important, but today’s science and engineering curriculum generally doesn’t address such analyses. “There’s a need for resources,” says Professor Schiebinger, “a place for people to go if they want to integrate sex and gender into their research but don’t know how.” With Gendered Innovations, Londa and her collaborators are building that place.

Sex and gender analysis functions in each step of the research process, leading to gendered innovations.

Case Studies Showcase Gendered Innovations

The project has defined 11 methods that researchers can use to bring sex and gender analyses into their work. From establishing research priorities, to data analysis, to rethinking reference models and engineering innovation processes, sex and gender are relevant and can affect choices and outcomes. A collection of peer-reviewed case studies reveals how those methods have led to new ideas and innovations, in contexts as varied as heart disease, speech synthesis technologies, and seatbelt design. The case of "Pregnant Crash Test Dummies", for instance, presents a problem associated with using the male body as the standard in car safety testing. These systems do not take into account the risks that the traditional three-point seatbelt poses to the fetus in a collision. Considering the specific concerns related to pregnancy has led to the development of virtual pregnant crash test dummies, such as "Linda" by Volvo, that model the effects of impact on the womb, placenta and fetus.

"Linda" by Volvo, a virtual pregnant crash test dummy designed in 2002 by engineer Laura Thackray. "Linda" models the effects of high-speed impact on the womb, placenta and fetus. (Image copyright: Volvo)
Linda, Volvo's virtual pregnant crash test dummy

The case studies are developed by the Stanford team, in collaboration with their international contributors. These include specialists from each field of study and gender experts. Workshops are held to discuss what each case study should include, Schiebinger’s team develops the materials at Stanford, and then submits them to the group for peer review.

“We try to find case studies across the fields of science and areas of engineering. It’s important that they make a new point, that they’re not repetitive.” Prof. Shiebinger expects to have 21 case studies completed when they launch the Gendered Innovations program on a large scale in 2013. “They’re very complicated to produce, so we’re doing representative case studies for different areas. The idea is that a researcher will go and look at the one closest to his or her field of study. In our user testing, that's what happens. I would love to do hundreds of case studies, but I’m not going to live that long!”

The Gendered Innovations project receives funding from the National Science Foundation and Stanford University in the U.S., and from the European Commission. “We try to choose examples from different cultures,” Londa Shiebinger explains. One case study addresses HIV, a global problem. Another examines gender roles and water infrastructure in Africa, important for development projects. A biodiversity case study is coming soon. “So we're speaking to people across cultures.”

“Different countries might have different priorities, but the methods are pretty much the same as long as we’re talking about modern, Western-style science.” And all of them could benefit from greater attention to sex- and gender-related factors. Sometimes that attention shows the other side of the coin, where sex differences have been overemphasized. The case study titled “De-Gendering the Knee” is just one example. Female-specific prostheses for knee replacement surgery came about in the 1990s, but evidence is lacking that they improve women’s outcomes. As the case study explains, “Such overemphasis could result in over-reliance on sex as a variable in choosing a knee implant for a given patient when in reality height is a better predictor of morphology than is sex.”

“Researchers want all the information available to them,” Londa Shiebinger believes. The concept of gendered innovations puts even more information and more knowledge at their disposal. She is confident that, after discovering the potential brought by sex and gender analyses, they’ll apply the ideas to their own work. “We hope they'll take that ah-ha moment and go back to their own research and create a new gendered innovation! We'd be delighted if people found something in their own research and sent us their results.”

In this era that promotes the value of “political correctness”, it is possible that we’ve gone too far in pretending certain sex differences don’t exist. Perhaps there’s something to be gained by identifying where they do exist and using them to our advantage. A wave of valid, scientifically-supported, and important gendered innovations could well result.



Find out more:


"Interdisciplinary Approaches to Achieving Gendered Innovations in Science, Medicine and Engineering", a background paper by Londa Schiebinger and Martina Schraudner

The 2nd European Gender Summit 2012, "Manifesto for Integrated Action on the Gender Dimension in Research and Innovation"



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