Londa Schiebinger's blog

Gendered Innovations: Sparking New Ideas

What happens when you bring together sixty scientists, engineers, medical researchers, and gender experts in a series of international, collaborative workshops?  You get something radically new. That’s the goal of Gendered Innovations. A Stanford startup, Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment adds value to science, medicine, and technology by deploying methods of sex and gender analysis.

Nowhere in U.S. engineering, science, or medical curricula are methods of gender analysis taught systematically to future researchers. This can produce costly and wasteful bias. For example, between 1997 and 2000, 10 drugs were withdrawn from the U.S. market because of life-threatening health effects.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. This is costly in terms of suffering and death, and in terms of economics. How can researchers avoid these mistakes and design the best research possible from the start?

The goal of the Gendered Innovations project is to provide scientists and engineers with a place to start. The peer-reviewed website offers twelve practical methods for sex and gender analysis. Analyzing sex and gender from the start can serve as a resource to stimulate new knowledge and technologies. Gender analysis acts as additional “controls” (or filters for bias) to provide excellence in science, health & medicine, and engineering research, policy, and practice. The methods of sex and gender analysis are one set of methods among many that researchers bring to a project.

Take stem cell research, for example. The sex of the cell matters. A researcher told me that he had done some experimental bone marrow transplants in rodents, and all of his male animals inexplicably died.  He had not considered the potential interactions between the sex of the donor cells, and the sex of the recipients. Therapeutic use of stem cells holds great hope, and we need to get it right. Important will be a few basic research steps, such as utilizing cells of both sexes in sufficient quantities to detect or rule out sex differences (not all sex differences will be significant). Simply reporting the sex of cells in experiments allows for systematic review and meta-analysis. Taking sex into account can advance basic knowledge regarding stem cells—but we need to get it right.

Or take osteoporosis, the weakening of bones with age that becomes significant as the population ages. Osteoporosis has long been defined as a disease of postmenopausal women. Why is this a problem?  Men account for a third of osteoporotic hip fractures after the age of 75—and when men break their hips, they die more often than women. We don’t know why. The gendered innovation in this case has been developing good diagnostics and treatments in men—across cultures.

Moving from basic science to engineering, consider models of the human body used for automobile safety. The European Commission asked us to review one of their projects that models the human thorax—that core of the body from the neck to the waist. The project uses cadavers and studies the force of impact on the body, for example on human ribs. How do they hold up under impact? This project, like many medical school anatomy classes, take the cadaver, discards the breasts, and get on with the study.  But 50 percent of the population has breasts, breasts can be damaged in accidents, and, perhaps more significantly, breasts may determine how the seat belt lies across the thorax to protect the body in an accident. The Gendered Innovations potential value added to this project is to ask the engineers to design the significance of breast tissue into their basic models.

We have case studies—concrete illustrations of how sex and gender analysis leads to new insights—treating video games, public transportation systems, climate change, the genetics of sex determination, natural language processing, assistive technology for the elderly, and more. While many of our case studies focus on the U.S. and Europe, several highlight gendered innovations in the developing world. One treats civil engineering and looks at water infrastructure. Nearly one billion people worldwide lack reliable access to improved water supplies. In sub-Saharan Africa, water-fetching (carrying water) is women’s work, and when villages lack water infrastructure, women and girls spend some 40 billion hours each year carrying water. Because water procurement is women’s work, many women have detailed knowledge of soils, and the water they yields. This knowledge is vital to civil engineering and development projects. Tapping into local women’s knowledge has improved the efficiency of well-placement projects—securing a better water supply for the community. When girls don’t have to carry water, they can attend school—providing a win-win for the community.

Gendered Innovations:

●     Add value to research and engineering by ensuring excellence and quality in outcomes and enhancing sustainability.

●     Add value to society by making research more responsive to social needs.

●     Add value to business by developing new ideas, patents, and technology.

Innovation is what makes the world tick. Gendered Innovations help to create gender equality; enhance creativity; stimulate economic and technological development; and to make research more responsive to society. As I hope I have begun to show here, gender analysis sparks creativity by offering new perspectives, posing new questions, and opening new areas to research. Can we afford to ignore such opportunities?

Londa Schiebinger is the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science in the History Department at Stanford University and Director of the EU/US Gendered Innovations in Science, Medicine, and Engineering Project.

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