Note to Innovators: Sex Matters

An online guide aims to improve products and services through more inclusive analysis.

November/December 2011

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Note to Innovators: Sex Matters

SEX OR GENDER: Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females, while gender refers to cultural and social rules or traditions that are associated with feminine and masculine behavior. Photo: John Hersey

We all need to demonstrate more interest in sex and gender. Intellectually.

And if we do it well, says history of science professor Londa Schiebinger, we'll save lives and influence the way researchers approach almost every field of study. It's going to take considerable effort—"Few people know how to do sex and gender analysis," Schiebinger says—but she's propelling her ideas onto an international stage with the fervor you'd expect from someone unveiling the signature project of her career.

In simplest terms, Schiebinger's message is that public policy and scientific research often fail to account for key differences between men and women, leading to alarming flaws in products and services. Two striking examples: seatbelt testing and design that ignores the effect of the restraints on pregnant women; and, in health care, inattention to the way osteoporosis afflicts males as well as females.

With joint funding from Stanford and the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, Schiebinger has synthesized her work on the website Gendered Innovations, her catchphrase for new ways of stimulating inventiveness throughout engineering, medicine, technology and government policy. She designed the recently launched site as a global guide to all facets of sex and gender analysis, highlighting definitions, methodologies and case studies that include notable research outcomes.

"My goal," says Schiebinger, former director of Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, "is to see sex and gender become a standard part of science and engineering, in both research and teaching."

Londa SchiebingerA FAIRER SHAKE: Schiebinger cites car safety designs that ignore the needs of pregnant women. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero)

One of Schiebinger's themes is the potential of sex and gender analysis to foster discovery and community progress, as opposed to merely exposing bias. Her case studies lean toward problems involving the unequal treatment of women, but Schiebinger has taken pains to emphasize solutions rather than compiling a lengthy list of grievances. For instance, she cites the improved understanding of traumatic brain injuries gained by including female animals in the research. That contrasts, says Schiebinger, with a history of female animals being underrepresented in many biomedical studies that are relevant to both men and women. Another prominent example: Women and girls have primary responsibility for procuring water in most countries, which means they could offer invaluable knowledge to international development projects.

Swarthmore College biology professor Scott Gilbert is familiar with Schiebinger's work. He puts her concept of gendered innovations in the context of "science as both a product of, and as a participant in, society"—thereby recognizing the possibility of science borrowing language or assumptions that bias research.

In an email interview, Gilbert referred to characterizations of "active" sperm racing toward the "passive" egg as an example of a cultural skew instead of helpful scientific data. "Dr. Schiebinger is compiling a manual to analyze what we are being told and to catch science when it becomes less objective than its own rules would allow."

Schiebinger says her work benefits enormously from the "incubator" environment at Stanford, and that her time as director of the Clayman Institute was highlighted by input from colleagues of almost every discipline. She's hoping the gendered innovations website will entice equally diverse attention from around the world, generating additional case studies that reflect the latest scientific trends.

The notion of taking "bold leaps" in sex and gender research is exciting in itself, but the scholarship is ultimately important, says Schiebinger, because of how tangibly it "can make a difference in people's lives."

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