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Women hold up half the sky, deserve half the research

When we talk about women in academia, we tend to concentrate on fixing the numbers and fixing the organisations. That means more women getting into research careers, staying in and reaching leadership positions and it means making sure that universities and other research organisations make structural changes in the way they recruit, support, retain and promote.

There is a third task, less well known yet equally important, which is fixing the knowledge. Gendered research and innovation, or GRI, is about making sure that gender and sex analysis are properly integrated into the research process itself. The League of European Research Universities, or LERU, has recently published an advice paper on this topic.

Why is this important? GRI is about making sure that research results are equally valid for people of all genders and sexes, of high quality and innovative. GRI therefore has an important role to play in improving global citizens’ lives and in ensuring that research and innovation are in tune with universities’ responsibility to society.

GRI matters because it helps research to answer the global societal challenges we are facing, from adaptation to climate change, to solutions for ageing populations, for energy challenges, and more.

Different experiences of disease

Taking a GRI perspective means making sure that research is done on both the male and female variant when appropriate. Doing the research right – for all sexes and genders – has the capacity to improve or save both lives and money.

In health research, for example, many diseases have been identified that affect women more heavily than men, such as cancer and osteoporosis.

It is increasingly recognised that women and men may manifest and experience diseases differently, respond differently to treatment, metabolise drugs differently and respond differently to devices. Some male/female differences can occur as early as during pregnancy and birth. Female infants, for instance, are more likely than males to contract HIV at birth, while male infants are more likely to be infected through breastfeeding.

The differences between the sexes can be found at a very fundamental level, namely even in cells, cell lines and cell regulatory practices.

Remarkably little effort, however, has been spent on rigorously investigating and reporting the underlying sex and gender differences (the first is a biological, the second a sociological concept). For too long, medical research has not systematically focused on differences in disease prevalence, progression, clinical outcomes and responses to treatment between women and men.

Too often it has been, and still may be, assumed that men can be used as the norm group for the entire population. As a result, women (and people who do not fit into the binary male-female scheme) continue to be underrepresented in clinical trials and are frequently subject to medical practices based on data from a predominantly male population.

Women are not just underrepresented in clinical trials. In laboratory studies and preclinical human research, male animals are much more frequently used than females. This is shown, for instance, in pain research: 79% of animal studies published in the journal Pain between 2001 and 2011 included males only, with only 8% of studies on females only and a mere 4% explicitly designed to test for sex differences (the rest did not specify).

But it is not only about women: diseases such as eating disorders in young men are under-diagnosed and under-treated.

Moreover, GRI is not limited to biomedical research. Researchers in all disciplines should ask themselves whether there are potentially sex and gender differences to be addressed in their research.

The LERU paper gives many examples: from urban transport to crash test dummies, machine translation, employment, sustainable development, climate change, criminology, etc. Many more examples can be found on the Gendered Innovations website, an initiative by Stanford University Professor Londa Schiebinger.

The research cycle

Not all research topics will have a GRI dimension. When there are no interactions with GRI, it is equally important to mention the question was posed, but no GRI dimension or effect was found.

Given the link made above to solving societal challenges, it is clear that researchers from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds should be aware of the need for a potential GRI dimension to their research, whether they are engineers, natural scientists or economists.

Scholars from the humanities and social sciences in particular can make important contributions in finding solutions to understanding societal challenges such as climate change, hunger, security, immigration and so on.

Many humanities and social science disciplines have a tradition of incorporating sex and gender analysis into research and have the methodological expertise for doing so. Humanities and social science insights may be most valuable in identifying the right research questions to ask, although a multidisciplinary approach is important at all stages of the research process.

The latter is another point to note. Engaging in GRI includes addressing potential sex and gender differences in each stage of the research cycle: when governments, funders, universities and others make decisions about priorities for research spending, when researchers decide on the research focus, methodology and data collection and when they analyse and report on data, when researchers, journals and others disseminate research results, and when research results are used by companies, governments or the public at large.

What can be done? The LERU paper makes 20 recommendations for stakeholders to act upon, emphasising the importance of support, promotion and resources for GRI.

University leadership needs to put GRI on the agenda within the university and with others outside the university. Researchers need to be informed so they can assess whether or not GRI is important in their research and act accordingly. Governments should include a GRI dimension in research policies and programmes.

Research funders can create financial incentives or support for researchers. The European Union funding programme Horizon 2020 can serve as a forward-looking model. Research journals should set standards for including GRI information, with clear guidelines for authors.

LERU universities have started to address this issue, but there is much work to be done. We would like to see concerted and systematic efforts to raise awareness of and provide training on GRI to members of all research stakeholder communities.

In addition, there is a need for links to and integration with other gender equality initiatives at all levels: through inclusion of GRI in government policies and strategies, funders’ programmes, universities’ gender equality strategies or action plans, research activities and researchers’ projects.

LERU has recently put out a statement calling attention to the issue of gender equality, which is a priority of the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU. We regret that GRI is missing in this discussion and we call on the ministers to include GRI in the December 2015 council conclusions as part of an overall ambitious set of plans for gender equality.

Katrien Maes is chief policy officer of the League of European Research Universities, or LERU. The first half of the headline comes from Mao Zedong, the second half from Simone Buitendijk (co-author of the LERU paper).

Related Links
Improve gender-based analysis in EU research – LERU
Harnessing the power of gender analysis
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