Scientific research must take gender into account


From car design to drug discovery, the failure to acknowledge sex differences can be costly and even lethal, argues Londa Schiebinger.

In Madrid a couple of years ago, I was interviewed for Spanish newspapers. When I later ran the text through Google Translate, I got a shock: I was referred to repeatedly as “he”.

Like much science and technology, Google Translate has a male default. When I drive a car, the seatbelt is not designed to accommodate breast tissue. Any medicines I take are more likely to have been tested on male than on female animals. There are moral issues here: women pay taxes and buy products and should not be short-changed. But scientific objectivity is at stake, too. Because medical research is done mainly in males, there is a male bias in, for example, the choice of drug targets. Science is halving the potential field of innovation.

This is not about active discrimination; the bias is largely unconscious. Google Translate defaults to the masculine pronoun because 'he' is more commonly found on the Web than 'she'. Yet that is changing: an analysis of American-English texts in Google Books shows that the ratio of masculine to feminine pronouns has fallen to around 2:1, from a peak of 4:1 in the 1960s.

In the summer of 2012, I invited Google and several language-processing experts to a Gendered Innovations workshop at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They listened to the problem for about 20 minutes, then said: “We can fix that!” Although it is complicated, the search for solutions is on. Fixing the problem is great, but constantly retrofitting for women is not the best road forwards.

A better way is to include gender at all relevant phases of research — when setting priorities, gathering and analysing data, evaluating results, developing patents and, finally, transferring ideas to markets. Science and technology should take into account the biological and social needs of both women and men.

Unconscious sex and gender bias can be socially harmful and expensive. In automotive engineering, short people (many women, but also many men) are classed as 'out-of-position' drivers and often ignored. This leads to greater injury in accidents. In medicine, osteoporosis has long been defined as a disease mainly of post-menopausal women — an assumption that has shaped screening, diagnosis and treatment. Yet after the age of 75, men account for nearly one-third of osteoporosis-related hip fractures. And in basic biomedical research, the failure to use female cells, tissues and animals can lead to greater health risks for women. Of the ten drugs withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2000, eight posed greater threats to women than to men. Developing a drug costs billions of dollars, and failure can cause human suffering and death — with stakes this high, why ignore half of the population?

Written By: Linda A. Cicero
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  1. I stopped using he and she a very long time ago. I thought it was well established. I notice the reversal sexist approach of she being used but that’s more of an “if they can be sexist assholes so can I” argument.

  2. Any medicines I take are more likely to have been tested on male than on female animals.


    Because medical research is done mainly in males, there is a male bias in, for example, the choice of drug targets.

    Why is this? Is there a specific reason why males are the preferred test subjects? Are human lab rats usually male too?

  3. In reply to #2 by Aztek:

    Are human lab rats usually male too?

    Sometimes. A recent wound-healing (pilot) study done at my dental school used only young male patients, with and without moderate gum disease. The explanation was “to keep down the number of confounding variables”.

    I merely report; it passed IRB review, though.


  4. This is the beauty of an adaptive methodology. Science has the wonderful quality of self-correction, constantly acknowledging its own faults and biases. The argument about personal pronouns seems insignificant but it demonstrates the effects of a patriarchal society by assuming a default male bias in even modern western civilizations. Any opposition to this notion of gender negates the aspirations of research: to analyze as many variables as possible in order to come to a testable, reliable, verifiable conclusion. I think it’s relevant that the father of modern physics was under the ghastly impression that the menstrual blood of prostitutes was embedded with magical properties. This isn’t relevant to his contributions, but it’s something to think about.

  5. I don’t know about a policy of using mainly male animals in testing, but when it comes to human testing I heard that ever since the Thalidomide tragedy people have been reluctant to test on women. Just in case the testee is pregnant.

  6. In reply to #5 by JimND:

    I heard that ever since the Thalidomide tragedy, people have been reluctant to test on women. Just in case the testee is pregnant.

    I’ve not heard that, but it certainly makes sense. Ironically, it was a woman doctor on the FDA board who emphatically argued against the drug’s approval.


    seat belts – out-of position drivers

    The u.s. automotive industry is reporting a noticeable increase in women buying cars / going to car shows (yes, male models are used). I’m presuming (ralph nader concur?) design changes will follow this fact – i.e. switch gears only when CEOs smell profits in the air.

    science / technology should take into account the biological and social needs of men and women

    Catch-22, if more women were involved in science and technology fields, ‘twould be a done deal. Many educational programs who’s specific goal is to get girls interested in science are out there. I’ve no idea if it’s working, tho.

  7. Its an inherently arrogant assumption from Man and belongs in the archaic eugenics department – almost as oppressive as religion against females but even modern minded scientific rational men still haven’t changed beyond the bias assumption…its a perpetual reminder of males aggressive power trip….and serves no other purpose than to hold the human race back…..

  8. In reply to #7 by Light Wave:

    arrogant … power trip

    Hmm, have to disagree here.

    I think those are learned behaviours for some males – an extension of what’s natural for men, to paraphrase the Scorpion. Not excusing the horrid acts of some men (I’ve had my share of “unpleasant” encounters), just trying to better understand the opposite sex.

    The book ‘Why women should rule the world’, is a tongue in cheek title leading to the author’s assertion that males / females each bring something different to the table = better solutions in general.

  9. Regarding he, she, s/he etc (an area where I’m less unqualified), it’s worth noting that the use of “they” to me he or she goes back centuries. I believe in was only in the 19th century when grammarians, do doubt in some sort of rule-imposing-fueled delirium, decided to nix it, as it didn’t match the Latin, and they wanted as much English grammar to match Latin grammar as possible. Hence no splitting infinitives, no ending on prepositions, and a whole lot of other useless rules.

    I wish we’d stop correcting people for using “they.”

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