Taking a gendered approach to research

Could your research be better if you thought more about gender? I’m not asking if you could say more about gender if you thought about gender; that much is obvious. No, I’m asking if the quality of your research results more broadly could be improved if issues of gender informed the methods you used and the questions you asked.

At the University of Tromsø, we suspect that gendered perspectives could make our research better, and so we’re kicking off a new project to explore these issues and to better communicate them to our students. We’re doing this to improve the quality of our science – anything that might have that effect, after all, deserves careful exploration.

We’re also doing it because our primary funding agencies will reward grants that include gendered perspectives, regardless of the field of the grant. This is true of the Research Council of Norway and it’s true of the European Union’s upcoming Horizon 2020 programme. Arvid Hallén, the Director of our Research Council, tells us how important this has become.

He says: “A gendered perspective is a criterion for all applications being evaluated by the Research Council of Norway.”

Our project draws inspiration from an international enterprise drawing the connection between overall research quality and the presence of gender-related questions and methods. The Gendered Innovations project – and its gorgeous website – offer several careful examples that could lead us to this conclusion.

Some of the easier cases come from medicine. I have written about research on heart disease and osteoporosis ("Your heart and my back: Two examples of gender-enhanced science"). Other cases come from engineering, where one example shows us that seatbelt designs are better for everyone when gender is included as a design issue ("Seatbelts for pregnant crash test dummies").

At the Gendered Innovations site, new examples continue to appear. We can learn how gendered approaches to research give better results overall, ranging from our understanding of the effects of environmental chemicals on reproductive health to the design of video games.

We also learn that this work has to be approached with caution, as is clear in an article titled "De-gendering the Knee: Overemphasising sex differences as a problem". In this case study, we see that changes in the way knee arthroplasty is performed may have gone too far in considering sex as a relevant factor. Differences that had been identified between the knees of men and women disappeared when the standing height of the individual was considered. Furthermore, other problems emerged when prostheses were designed differently for men and women. The article says:

“Sex must be analysed, but overemphasising sex to the exclusion of other factors is also a problem. First, overemphasising sex may alter women’s medical decisions and outcome expectations, leading them to choose a more costly prosthesis. Moreover, surgeons using an unfamiliar implant to satisfy patient requests may have worse patient outcomes. Second, a ‘female knee’ may be a poor fit for some women and a good fit for some men, and physicians have expressed concern that a male patient may object to receiving an implant ‘designed for women’ even if it offered the best fit for him.”

Cases like this one emphasise for us that the work of adding new perspectives to research and education must be done carefully.

My university was the first anywhere to adopt the recommendations of the genSET project at the European Commission, and in doing so, we have made the following commitment:

“Scientists should be trained in using methods of sex and gender analysis. Both managerial levels and researchers should be educated in such sex and gender analysis. Training in methods of sex and gender analysis should be integrated into all subjects across all basic and applied science curricula.”

Our new project is a step towards fulfilling this commitment. Research groups will be able to apply for funding for supplemental positions to bring gender perspectives into their ongoing research. Teaching programmes will be able to apply for funding to develop gendered perspectives in their curricula. Our initial commitment is 2 million Norwegian crowns (US$350,000). Stay tuned for future updates.

* Curt Rice is vice president for research and development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) at the University of Tromsø.