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Women on the research team ensure more nuanced medical research

Research team from Aarhus BSS and Stanford University demonstrates a relationship between gender diversity in the author group and the attention devoted to gender and sex analysis in medical research. This can be a matter of life and death and have a major financial impact.

2017.11.06 | Ingrid Marie Fossum

The likelihood that gender and sex based differences are taken into account in medical research increases if the lead or final author is a women, but it also increases with the general share of women on the research team. The strongest correlation can be observed in cases where a woman has a leading role on the research team. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU

When women participate as authors on medical research articles, there is a greater likelihood that the articles adopt a perspective on gender and sex based differences. Controlling for gender and sex can have a major impact on people on medication as well as on the prevention and treatment of illnesses.

Consider for example the US authorities’ decision to halve the recommended dose of the sleeping pill Ambien for women. Since women metabolise zolpidem (the active ingredient in Ambien) slower than men do, they risked feeling sluggish the next morning and posing a danger in traffic if they had taken a full dose the night before. Traffic accidents could have been prevented if there had been more focus on gender and sex related differences before introducing Ambien on the market.

Similarly, eight out of ten medical drugs taken off the US market between 1997 and 2000 posed an increased risk to women’s health. A danger that could have been avoided if the research behind the drugs had focused more on gender and sex based differences.

Serious consequences

The consequences of not accounting for gender and sex in medical research can be serious and unpredictable. Nevertheless, controlling for gender and sex is not a matter of course.

Historically speaking, the lack of focus on gender and sex has impacted women in particular. However, there are also illnesses where men are being overlooked, such as osteoporosis, which has traditionally been regarded as a women’s disease.

A research team from Aarhus BSS and Stanford University has now analysed over 1.5 million medical research articles from across the world to determine if there is a relationship between the gender composition of the author group and the degree to which gender and sex based differences are taken into account in the research. The results are published in Nature’s new journal Human Behavior this week, and they speak for themselves.

The likelihood that gender and sex based differences are taken into account in medical research increases if the lead or final author is a women, but it also increases with the general share of women on the research team. The strongest correlation can be observed in cases where a woman has a leading role on the research team.

Improved knowledge for the benefit of society

“Our study indicates that promoting gender diversity in the scientific workforce may have important implications for the research conducted by universities. And in light of our results, it is worrying that relatively few women are last authors in medical research. In this field, the final author typically makes the final decisions with respect to identifying, planning and developing research questions and projects. Among the articles we’ve examined, women account for 40 per cent of the first authors, but only for 27 per cent of the last authors,” says Assistant Professor Mathias Wullum Nielsen from Aarhus BSS.

With the new research results, he and his colleagues from Aarhus BSS and Stanford University want to demonstrate that it is important for universities and research councils to develop gender equality policies that rest on two pillars.

“Our work indicates a symbiotic relationship between gender equality policies that aim to promote the advancement of women researchers and initiatives aimed at making researchers more attentive to the relevance of gender and sex in their work. The two approaches support each other, so to speak, and together they can lead to more nuanced and accurate knowledge on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of medical conditions, to the benefit of men and women alike,” he explains. 

For further info:

Mathias Wullum Nielsen 
Assistant professor in political science at Aarhus BSS
mwn@ps.au.dk
+45 8716 5889  

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