Factoring gender into innovation for better outcomes

August 2017

By Eleanor Khonje, freelance writer

Heart disease is a leading cause of death among women in the United States and Europe. Yet for many years it was considered a male condition, and clinical research focused almost exclusively on the functional changes that occur in male patients. As a consequence, many women were wrongly diagnosed.

Photo: Linda Cicero

Similarly, osteoporosis is considered a predominantly female condition. Men are rarely evaluated or treated for it. But after age 75, men suffer nearly one-third of hip fractures related to the condition in the United States and Europe.

These examples illustrate why it is important for scientists, engineers and other researchers to factor sex and gender – and the differential impact that research may have on both women and men – into their research protocols and development work.

WIPO Magazine recently sat down with Professor Londa Schiebinger, John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science and Director of Gendered Innovations in Science, Health and Medicine, Engineering and Environment at Stanford University in the United States, to find out more about why sex and gender need to be taken seriously by researchers, engineers and inventors. 

What prompted you to start the Gendered Innovations project?

I have always been interested in the role that gender plays in the cultural production of knowledge. And I wanted to develop a practical tool that demonstrates that by integrating sex and gender analysis into scientific, medical and environmental research, you create new knowledge and bring about positive change. Gendered Innovations is all about discovery and innovation, and focuses on improving research and making it more inclusive.

Gender in a nutshell

Gender is all about what is means to be a man and what it means to be a woman or a gender-diverse person. It explores how men and women experience life differently, not because of biology but because of the social and cultural meanings developed around each. For decades, feminist research has underlined the need to evaluate the influence of gender in order to effectively tackle development challenges and promote inclusive development – and with some success. Today, gender equality is one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and is increasingly accepted as an important and necessary objective.

Tell us more about the project.

Gendered Innovations is an analytical framework developed by an international collaboration of experts including over 80 scientists, humanists and gender experts. Its aim is to demonstrate how we can harness the creative power of sex and gender analysis for innovation and discovery. Gender analysis adds a valuable dimension to research and can take it in new directions. It generates valuable insights and outcomes for women and men.

The project develops practical tools for scientists and engineers, enabling them to include sex and gender analysis into their basic and applied research work. Our aim is to produce excellence in science, health and medicine and engineering research, policy and practice. We also generate case studies to show concretely how sex and gender analysis leads to innovation. The idea is to get researchers thinking about how gender impacts their work. Many of them may have never thought about this. We want to promote gender thinking, or at least an awareness of the impact of unconscious gender bias on the policies, decisions and activities of institutions and businesses. Again, the aim is to help identify needs and to develop practical solutions that work for everyone.

In science and engineering hidden gender bias can result
in harmful outcomes. For example, the conventional car
seat belt does not fit pregnant women properly and poses
major safety concerns for them. Motor vehicle accidents
are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal
trauma (photo: iStock.com/© piranka).

Why is a gender perspective important for innovation?

In science and engineering hidden gender bias has existed for centuries. In many cases the male body is considered the norm and is the primary object of study. There are so many technologies that have been designed exclusively around men. Even cars are designed around a specific male norm, with women (and smaller men) typically analyzed as an afterthought or viewed as a deviation from that norm. But this can result in harmful outcomes. The conventional seat belt, for example, does not fit pregnant women properly and poses a major safety concern for millions of them. A woman wearing a seatbelt who is carrying a 20-week-old fetus and is involved in a car crash runs a high risk of losing her baby. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma. I have been talking about this for some years, and just recently was invited to discuss the issue at the Stanford Automotive Research Center and was delighted to meet someone from a major car company who is interested in fixing the problem.

It is very rewarding when you present people with a problem that they may never have thought about and they can fix it. This is how the Gendered Innovations project is helping to make a real difference to people’s lives.

The seatbelt example is just one illustration of why we need to rethink standards and reference models. If we don’t pay attention to humans of different shapes and sizes when designing products and technologies, we run the risk of causing unintended harm. If researchers and engineers broaden their vision and take both men and women as the norm, there is every chance they will expand creativity in science and technology, make it work for everyone, and bring safety, well-being and satisfaction to all.

How does including a gender analysis affect outcomes?

Doing research wrong costs lives and money and we miss opportunities for progress. This is particularly evident in the health field. Between 1997 and 2000, 10 drugs were withdrawn from the United States market because of life-threatening effects. Eight of them were found to put women’s health at greater risk than men’s health. Drug development is a long and costly process. It takes years and costs billions of dollars, and when drugs fail, as these did, they can cause human suffering and death. If medical researchers don’t factor gender into the equation, they risk killing patients.

But doing research right adds value and can save lives and money. A study of the United States Women’s Health Initiative Hormone Therapy Trial, for example, found that the trial saved lives, adding 145,000 quality-adjusted lives, and that for every dollar spent in the trial, USD 140 were returned.

Similarly, in business an awareness of the role sex and gender play can create significant new market opportunities and boost profits. A company that doesn’t think about gender risks losing customers.

Apple’s recent experience with its HealthKit app for iPhones illustrates this. When the company launched the app they claimed it could track all kinds of biometric data, pulse, blood pressure and so on. They were confident it would be a hit. But unfortunately, the developers failed to factor sex and gender into their work – the app did not track the female menstrual cycle. They swiftly lost half of their customers. Poor uptake drove Apple to fix and relaunch it. But at what cost?

By analyzing sex and gender throughout the engineering
innovation process, researchers are looking beyond
stereotypes to understand the complex patterns of
young women’s and men’s video gaming preferences.
Challenging gender stereotypes may enhance diversity
in video and online games and the industry
itself (photo: iStock.com/© Minerva Studio).

On the other hand, the videogame producer, EA, has taken sex and gender on board and has developed software that tracks every move a player makes so they can capture male and female preferences and craft games in line with them. On the strength of these data, they were the first to introduce a range of women’s soccer games, sales for which have gone wild. 

Do you think a sex and gendered analysis in innovation will make for a more inclusive society?

Yes. Our research shows that the more women authors are involved in a medical paper, the greater the level of sex and gender analysis. I think it is also true that the more sex and gender analysis there is, the more women will get involved in knowledge creation. And that is a good thing. After all, women make up around half of the global population and have huge potential, albeit largely untapped, to contribute to human knowledge. Our research suggests that the more widely sex and gender analysis is adopted, the more people who previously were left out are brought in.

Why do policymakers, researchers and entrepreneurs need to take Gendered Innovation seriously?

Gendered Innovation leads to equality and sustainability – people don’t throw away the things that work for them – and ultimately serves the public interest. It is an opportunity to improve scientific research and improve understanding of the impact of diseases on men and women, and to ensure that scientific research and technical breakthroughs serve all people equally. It also presents interesting market opportunities. Today, women have much more political clout and purchasing power and are increasingly demanding the technologies and the products that work for them.

The assumption that osteoporosis is primarily a
disease of postmenopausal women has shaped
its screening, practice, diagnosis and treatment
and resulted in the underdiagnosis of osteoporosis
in men. One-third of all osteoporosis-related hip
fractures in Europe and the United States are
suffered by men (photo: iStock.com/© wildpixel).

Why do you think it has taken so long for researchers and practitioners to buy into the idea of including gender analysis in their work?

For hundreds of years universities were closed to women, but slowly women became students and eventually professors. Now, we have lots of women who are senior professors and we also have many more women holding senior positions in government and business. Cultural change takes time, and needs the right resources and the right political climate. It has taken too long, but now things are changing quickly and there is no turning back because people’s eyes are opening.

To achieve gender equality, is it enough simply to encourage girls to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects?

No, encouraging STEM alone is not enough. Interestingly, Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google now recognize they need much more than STEM specialists and are beginning to hire more social scientists and humanists. They realize their success hinges on a deep understanding of society and culture. The prospect of STEM linking up with the humanities and social sciences is very exciting. It will allow engineers, for example, to design many more products that work for everyone.

What else needs to be done?

Gender equality raises two important issues: the need to reduce gender bias against women and to integrate sex and gender analysis into all areas of science, technology and commerce. Gendered Innovations is an attempt to fix the gender gaps in knowledge creation. But of course a lot still needs to be done to fix the numbers of women participating in these fields and the unconscious gender biases embedded in many institutions.

Understanding gender and sex-related differences in colorectal
cancer risk may improve diagnosis and provide better prevention and
treatment protocols for men and women (photo: iStock.com/© yumiyum).

Many organizations are working to remove structural barriers to gender equality. Governments are catalyzing institutional change through programs such as the United States National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Program and the European Commission’s Women and Gender in Research programs. Academia is also working to remove gender bias in its hiring and promotion practices, and in the private sector many companies are actively working to improve representation of women in upper management.

But organizations need to be transformed also from the top. Leaders need to actively support gender equality and reward those who advance it. They need to make resources available, set goals and make people aware of how their institution is bringing in those who previously were not represented. 

Where do you see Gendered Innovation in the next five to 10 years?

My sense is it will be widely adopted. The European Commission is embracing it, as are the United States National Institutes of Health, the Swiss National Science Foundation and many others. And 10 years from now, I hope we will put ourselves out of business because sex and gender analysis will have become an integral part of the way research and development is done.

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