Cardiovascular diseases manifest differently in men than in women – this is now reasonably well known within and beyond medical science. Yet the male bias in science is still widespread. The traditional test subjects are male rats and, in later research stages, men.
“But scientific research that doesn’t take account of sex and gender differences is poor research”, says Dr. Ineke Klinge, associate professor of Gender Medicine at Maastricht University. At the request of the European Commission, she led the project Gendered Innovations, which encourages researchers to give sex and gender the place in scientific research they deserve.
Cultural shift underway
In addition to researchers, the information is useful for reviewers of academic publications. “It gives them the opportunity to say: ‘If the article doesn’t indicate whether the research was done in male or female mice, we won’t accept it.’ It’s still good practice to report on this even if you can show that the differences are not relevant for this particular study. As far as my colleagues and I are concerned, you ought to go through these checklists and at least mention it in your article”, Klinge says
Maastricht professor Ineke Klinge is convinced that the present momentum will put sex and gender on the map in scientific research. “A cultural shift is underway in this area. Researchers present themselves as proponents of gender medicine, major funding bodies are paying more attention to it than ever, and there are conferences and handbooks to disseminate the insights gained.”
To ensure that future scientists are familiar with these ideas too, Klinge collaborated with researchers from seven other universities in Europe on a master’s module that medical students in Maastricht can now choose as an elective. “The students learn that it’s normal practice to report on this in scientific research.”
Excessive gender attention inappropriate
Klinge does not claim that every sex difference is relevant. “A man’s big toe won’t differ much from a woman’s. And sometimes attention is paid to the wrong things. For instance, we learned of one factory that designed a knee prosthesis specially for the female anatomy. But a person’s height is much more important than their sex when it comes to fitting prostheses. Excessive attention is just as inappropriate as no attention at all. It’s about finding the justified attention.”
She is well aware, too, that some scientists are critical of her field. “Dealing with a problem like obesity in a disadvantaged neighbourhood calls for a different approach, sociologists would say, than seeking sex and gender differences between men and women in the development of obesity. My reply to that is that we should seek the most effective approach to intervention on a case-by-case basis.”