From car design to drug discovery, the failure to acknowledge sex differences can be costly and even lethal, argues Londa Schiebinger.
In Madrid a couple of years ago, I was interviewed for Spanish newspapers. When I later ran the text through Google Translate, I got a shock: I was referred to repeatedly as “he”.
Like much science and technology, Google Translate has a male default. When I drive a car, the seatbelt is not designed to accommodate breast tissue. Any medicines I take are more likely to have been tested on male than on female animals. There are moral issues here: women pay taxes and buy products and should not be short-changed. But scientific objectivity is at stake, too. Because medical research is done mainly in males, there is a male bias in, for example, the choice of drug targets. Science is halving the potential field of innovation.
This is not about active discrimination; the bias is largely unconscious. Google Translate defaults to the masculine pronoun because 'he' is more commonly found on the Web than 'she'. Yet that is changing: an analysis of American-English texts in Google Books shows that the ratio of masculine to feminine pronouns has fallen to around 2:1, from a peak of 4:1 in the 1960s.
In the summer of 2012, I invited Google and several language-processing experts to a Gendered Innovations workshop at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They listened to the problem for about 20 minutes, then said: “We can fix that!” Although it is complicated, the search for solutions is on. Fixing the problem is great, but constantly retrofitting for women is not the best road forwards.
A better way is to include gender at all relevant phases of research — when setting priorities, gathering and analysing data, evaluating results, developing patents and, finally, transferring ideas to markets. Science and technology should take into account the biological and social needs of both women and men.
Unconscious sex and gender bias can be socially harmful and expensive. In automotive engineering, short people (many women, but also many men) are classed as 'out-of-position' drivers and often ignored. This leads to greater injury in accidents. In medicine, osteoporosis has long been defined as a disease mainly of post-menopausal women — an assumption that has shaped screening, diagnosis and treatment. Yet after the age of 75, men account for nearly one-third of osteoporosis-related hip fractures. And in basic biomedical research, the failure to use female cells, tissues and animals can lead to greater health risks for women. Of the ten drugs withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2000, eight posed greater threats to women than to men. Developing a drug costs billions of dollars, and failure can cause human suffering and death — with stakes this high, why ignore half of the population?
Written By: Linda A. Cicero
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