Sex is making research better

One of the world’s best-known feminists, Gloria Steinem, recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Steinem first became widely known as a researcher of sorts, but it’s a pithy quote of hers that I often think of when I reflect on the underrepresentation of women in science.

“The truth will set you free,” she says. “But first, it will piss you off.”

What is the truth about women and research? And why should it upset us?

We know the facts about the research careers of women, and we increasingly understand why women are held back.

But if we move beyond important issues about the careers of women who practice science, and start looking at the actual formulation of research questions and how they so often leave women out of the picture, it starts to get annoying.

The way scientists formulate research questions and the methods they use directly affect their potential relevance. And questions and methods often overlook females. Why should all of society fund research that benefits only half of us?

As an example of the cost of gender imbalanced research questions and methods, consider a report from the Governmental Accountability Office in the United States. That report tells us that between 1997 and 2000 :

 “10 prescription drugs have been withdrawn from the U.S. market” and that “eight of the 10 prescription drugs posed greater health risks for women than for men.”

It’s not just a matter of doing work that also benefits women. When we formulate research questions in ways that acknowledge the relevance of sex and gender, we create the context for higher quality work with more reliable findings for all of us. David Page Director of the Whitehead Institute, eloquently argues in a TED talk that failure to sufficiently take account of sex at the cellular level seriously undermines research on many kinds of diseases.

But the failure of scientists to deliver the best and most broadly applicable results is not limited to medical research. A variety of excellent examples can be studied at Stanford’s Gendered Innovations website or at the website of the European Union’s genderSTE project.

• Seatbelt designers did not consider what would happen to pregnant women and fetuses in car accidents. 82% of fetal deaths with known sources are caused by car accidents. Research with pregnant crash test dummies will lead to seatbelts that better protect all of us, not least of all male and female fetuses alike.

• The climate impact of vegetarians is much smaller than the climate impact of meat eating humans. Women are more likely to be vegetarian than men. By including gendered perspectives in research on the environment, we can better explore how dietary habits are established and we can more precisely investigate their implications for the environment.

Awareness of the value of gendered perspectives in reseach is growing.

• The Horizon 2020 research program from the European Commission requires all applicants to address the relevance of gendered perspectives in their projects, as recommended among others by the genSET Science Leaders Panel. (To learn more, consider attending the Gender Summit.)

• The Gates Foundation only supports agricultural research that includes consideration of the different roles of men and women “because women can be further marginalized if their concerns and needs are not explicitly factored in the program design."

In addition to scientists and funding agencies, scientific journals are also becoming more demanding. Many journals, including leaders such as PLoS, the Lancet and Nature, now require detailed information about sex in studies before they can be considered for publication.

This triumvirate of pressures — the promise of enhanced quality, the demands of funding organizations, and new requirements from journals — is bringing much more attention to gendered perspectives in science.

Changing the nature of research questions and methodologies may also contribute to changing the nature of the workplace and attracting more women to science — which would solve one of our most serious problems. To make research careers equally appealing to men and women, we have to make it clear that the culture we want to develop is welcoming for both men and women. One way to do that is to develop research questions that are likely to yield results that are relevant for everyone.

When we achieve enhanced awareness and use of gendered methodologies in the development of research questions, we acknowledge the reality of sex and gender variation in whatever we are studying. This acknowledgement is itself an act of inclusiveness.

Without cultural change, dramatic measures will continue to be necessary to attract women to research careers.

On the other hand, with cultural change, we can hope that one day, the truth might even make us happy.

Curt Rice leads Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance in Research and has participated in several international projects on gender balance and gendered perspectives in science. Follow him on twitter @curtrice and read more of his writing on these topics at

For Women in Science

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