Harnessing the power of gender analysis

Doing research wrong can cost lives and money. For example, between 1997 and 2000 10 drugs were withdrawn from the US market because of life-threatening health effects. Eight of these posed greater health risks for women than for men. Not only does developing a drug in the current market cost billions – but when drugs fail, they can cause human suffering and death.

Doing research right has the potential to save lives and money. This is the goal of Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment. This Stanford University start-up brought together 70 scientists, engineers and gender experts from across the US, Europe, Canada and Asia to explore how gender analysis can open doors to discovery.

International collaborations supported by the European Commission and the US National Science Foundation have developed state-of-the-art methods for sex and gender research.

Why does gender matter? Once you start looking, you find that understanding gender can improve almost everything. Ever use Google Translate? What if you are a woman and the article is about you? The machine defaults to “he”: Londa Schiebinger, “he” wrote, “he” thought, occasionally, “it” said. With one algorithm, Google wiped out 40 years of revolution in language and they didn’t mean to. This is unconscious gender bias.

The solution? A couple of years ago the Gendered Innovations project held a workshop where we worked with natural language processing experts. They listened for about 20 minutes, they got it and they said, “We can fix that!”

Gender analysis

Fixing it is great, but constantly retrofitting for women is not the best road forward. I had to ask myself how is it that Google engineers, many of whom are educated at Stanford, made such a simple mistake? What are we at Stanford doing wrong? I will soon be working with our dean of engineering to incorporate gender analysis into the engineering curriculum. We at Stanford want to provide the best graduates for companies in Silicon Valley and across the US.

In medicine, osteoporosis has been conceptualised primarily as a women’s disease yet after a certain age men account for nearly a third of osteoporosis-related hip fractures. And when men break their hips, they tend to die. We don’t know why. Gendered Innovations in osteoporosis research has developed new diagnostics for men and the search for better treatments is underway.

In safety engineering, ergonomic differences between men and women are important. Conventional seatbelts do not fit pregnant women properly and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of foetal death related to maternal trauma. Gendered innovations have led to the development of pregnant crash test dummies that enhance safety in automobile testing and design.

In civil engineering, understanding physiological differences between men and women can help reset outdated standards. A recent article published in Nature Climate Change revealed that the thermal comfort standards for residential buildings and offices set in the 1960s were based on the resting metabolic rate of an average male, or more precisely a European male, 70kg, age 40. These standards, used worldwide, may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35%.

Researchers in the Netherlands have developed new metabolic metrics for composite thermal insulation. They hypothesise that an accurate representation of thermal demand for all occupants (men, women, seniors, etc) may lead to energy savings of 30% of total carbon dioxide emissions from residential buildings and offices.

Gendered Innovations add value to research and engineering by ensuring excellence and sustainability in outcomes. Considering gender adds value to society by making research more responsive to the social needs of everyone. Gendered Innovations stimulate gender-responsible science and technology, thereby enhancing the quality of life for both women and men worldwide.

Sex inclusion guidelines

The European Commission or EC, the US National Institutes of Health or NIH, and Foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, are tackling the issue by tying funding to results. In December 2013, the EC designated 137 subfields where data showed that gender analysis could benefit research – these range from computer hardware and architecture to nanotechnology, oceanography, geosciences, organic chemistry, aeronautics, space medicine, biodiversity, ecology and biophysics, among others.

In 2015, the NIH rolled out new guidelines for sex inclusion in research in cells, tissues and animals. NIH is well on the road to transforming medicine by increasing the pace of new discoveries, diminishing errors of extrapolation between sexes and mitigating adverse events in the drug, devices and biologics development pipeline. These policies are crucial to the health of women and men everywhere.

There is much work to be done! Researchers need to learn sophisticated methods of sex and gender analysis. Universities need to incorporate these methods into their curricula. Granting agencies can ask applicants to explain how sex and gender analysis is relevant to their proposed research. Editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals can require sophisticated sex and gender analysis when selecting papers for publication. Industry can incorporate the smartest aspects of gender in innovative products, processes, services or infrastructures.

Eyes have been opened – and we cannot return to a world that ignores gender.

Innovation is what makes the world tick. Gendered innovations spark creativity by offering new perspectives, posing new questions and opening new areas to research. Can we afford to ignore such opportunities?

Londa Schiebinger is the John L Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford University. She is also director of the European Union/United States Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment project. Gendered Innovations provides workshops to help researchers learn sophisticated methods of sex and gender analysis. A version of this was first published in DiscovHer.