The Importance of Gendered Innovations

Doing research wrong can cost lives and money. For example, between 1997 and 2000, 10 drugs were withdrawn from the U.S. market because of life-threatening health effects.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 failed, they 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 sixty scientists, engineers, and gender experts to explore how gender analysis can open doors to discovery. International, collaborations supported by European Commission and the US National Science Foundation 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. Considering gender helps Google understand that even machines need to get the gender right.

In safety engineer, 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 fetal 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 medicine, osteoporosis has been conceptualized 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.

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. And using a gender-critical approach adds value to business by developing new ideas, patents, and technology.

Gendered Innovations stimulate gender-responsible science and technology, thereby enhancing the quality of life for both women and men worldwide.

The European Commission, the US National Institutes of Health, 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, biophysics, among other. In 2014, the NIH rolled out new policies 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. But 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?

For Women in Science

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