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Sexism in Science: Bias Beyond the Lab

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Lately, we’ve been inundated with information on women’s underrepresentation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). But what doesn’t get a lot of recognition is that inequality in science doesn’t just apply to the gender of the people working on new developments–it can extend to the nature of the developments themselves. Medical research has a history of being disproportionately biased toward men, despite the fact that differences between the sexes affect everything from how diseases should be treated to how medications are developed. Bias in medical research extends beyond the lab, and that’s a problem. Read on to learn about the need for equality in medical research, and how ensuring that equality is a step toward good health for all.


History of Sexism in Science

Sexism has been endemic in many aspects of scientific research; a full historical review would be as lengthy as it would be disheartening. But it’s important to recognize a consistent tradition of sex-based inequality in medical research. It has long been assumed that conclusions can be applied generally to both men and women, without taking into account the need to design studies that focus specifically on the biological and physical differences between the sexes. There have been myriad reasons for this lack of female inclusion. Science was heavily focused on studying the “norm,” and the “norm” as pertaining to scientific research was a roughly 155-pound man. Moreover, it was believed that the only difference between men and women were their respective sex organs. Furthermore, concerns regarding testing on pregnant women, or potentially-pregnant women, and the harm that could happen to fetuses discouraged researchers from including women of child-bearing age, and sometimes women as a whole due to their changing hormone cycles.

However, those assumptions finally began to change, albeit slowly, in the later decades of the 20th century. In 1985, a report released by the Public Health Service Task Force on Women’s Health Issues concluded that “the historical lack of research focus on women’s health concerns has compromised the quality of health information available to women as well as the health care they receive.” Founder of the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR ®) Dr. Florence Haseltine, MD, PhD, was working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the mid-1980s when she began championing the need for medical research that recognized differences between men and women. She eventually coined the term “sex-based biology,” essentially meaning the study of the sex differences between men and women and how they apply to different aspects of medical research and health. Dr. Haseltine worked to confront different ways in which this inequality was manifested, including by advocating for more women to be included in clinical trials. Despite the fact that the NIH had recognized that inclusion of women in clinical trials is essential, they still aren’t always included.

These revelations sparked action by government agencies including the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. But it correspondingly also sparked the need for an organization that could champion the cause of sex-based biology head on. The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) was founded in 1990 to “bring attention to the lack of inclusion of women and minorities in medical research and clinical trials.”

While progress has been made in including women in scientific research, there’s still substantial work to be done. Women and minorities remain underrepresented in clinical trials and medical research.


Why is it so important that sex differences are taken into account in medical research?

Put simply: men and women are biologically different. Health differences between men and women range from a prevalence of a particular disease, to the ways in which it manifests itself, to the drugs used to treat it. For example, SWHR focuses on Alzheimer’s Disease and Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) as two of the many illnesses that deserve a look through a sex-based biological lens.

Alzheimer’s Disease 

Alzheimer’s Disease is one example of a condition that disproportionately affects women. In fact, women are almost twice as likely to be affected by Alzheimer’s as men. Overall, it is the fifth most common cause of death for American women. This increased prevalence for women isn’t just coincidental. There are specific sex differences that need to be taken into account when it comes to the study of how and why Alzheimer’s Disease strikes some and not others. According to experts at SWHR’s Alzheimer’s Roundtable, there are many different factors to consider:

Women suffering from depression have a 90 percent increased risk compared to men and an even greater risk after menopause, due to decreased estrogen levels. Another risk factor is having a hysterectomy and ovaries removed. Women who remove their ovaries before the age of 48 have a 70 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. However, if that woman used estrogen hormone therapy until menopause, she reduces her risk.

In order to prevent the devastating onset of Alzheimer’s–which is estimated to affect 15 million people over the next 15 years–it is essential to understand what role sex differences play and how women’s physiology can make them, in some cases, more susceptible.

Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)

Despite popular perception about its frequency in the male population, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains an acute problem for women. In fact, CVD accounts for one in three deaths among American women–more than all cancers combined.

It’s also another example of an illness that can manifest differently between men and women, and has different risk factors. For example, CVD appears on average seven to 10 years later for women than men. There are also risk factors that are more visible for women than men, such as the fact that young women who smoke are at a higher relative risk for developing CVD than men who smoke.

Moreover, the way that CVD presents in women can be different than in men–sometimes leading to a failure by healthcare professionals to detect symptoms in a timely fashion. Women’s symptoms can include fatigue and indigestion, and can appear up to a month before a heart attack. These differences can also lead to misdiagnosis when a woman is actually experiencing a cardiac event–a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women under 55 were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed than men. It’s important that researchers and doctors consider how not only different sex-based risk factors contribute to CVD, but also how different symptoms present themselves.

Another issue with a male-centric view of CVD is that symptoms that are more prevalent for men have been more widely publicized and focused upon in public service campaigns. As a result, women may not recognize the symptoms or risk factors themselves–the following video created by SWHR highlights some of the gaps in public knowledge:


Continued Underrepresentation in Clinical Trials and Research

It’s evident that progress has been made in including women in clinical trials–particularly when it comes to specific topics like heart disease and breast cancer. However, there’s still much work to be done. As recently as 2014, the FDA moved toward greater transparency in disclosing the sex breakdown of those who participate in clinical trials. However, that news was bittersweet–it confirmed long-standing concerns about the inclusion of women in clinical trials. SWHR released a statement about the FDA’s disclosure, stating:

We commend the FDA for the effort in collecting and releasing these data to the public and we believe it is an initial first step towards reducing the disparities and lack of information on sex and ethnic differences. But as is evident, the percentage of minority participation is dismal and while there are women in all of the trials, the numbers are not statistically significant to reach any clinical relevance.

So, where are researchers still struggling when it comes to including women in clinical trials and research?

Cardiovascular Disease Clinical Trials 

While the risk of CVD has been well-recognized by proponents of sex-based biology, and women have been increasingly included in studies about cardiovascular disease, there’s still a struggle to make sure that studies report on gender differences. According to a 2009 paper by the American Heart Association (AHA) on the “Status of Women in Cardiovascular Clinical Trials,” both government and non-government studies continued to fail to report on sex differences in CVD studies between 2000-2006. The AHA stated:

An analysis of trials included in Cochrane meta-analyses (Cochrane Systematic Reviews) for the inclusion of women in cardiovascular clinical trials and for the reporting of gender-based analyses showed similar results. Of 258 clinical trials studied, women constituted only 27 percent of the pooled population and of 196 trials which included both genders, only 33 percent reported gender-based outcomes. When analyzed by year of publication before or after 1993, there was no difference in the frequency of gender-based analyses.

In order to ensure that the differences in the ways that women and men present and experience CVD are taken into account, reporting on sex differences in clinical trials needs to be a priority.


Conclusion

There’s no doubt that we’ve come far in this field and an improved concentration on exploring sex-based biology has resulted in a better understanding of sex differences–but we need to continue to such efforts in order to promote good health for all men and women. Clinical trials need to be designed to ensure not only the inclusion of, but also the recognition of their differences. Working toward inclusivity of medical research will benefit us all by increasing our understanding of what causes various illnesses and how to treat them.


Resources

Primary 

Society for Women’s Health Research: History

Society for Women’s Health Research: Timeline

Society for Women’s Health Research: News

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Leading Causes of Death

Additional

Journal of Applied Physiology: Sex and Gender: What is the Difference?

American Heart Association: Status of Women in Cardiovascular Clinical Trials

Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases: Yes, Biologically Speaking, Sex Does Matter

American Journal of Nursing: Progress, Not Perfection

Newswise: Alzheimer’s and the Downward Spiral: SWHR Holds Congressional Briefing About Women and Alzheimer’s Disease

Netherlands Heart Journal: Gender Differences in Coronary Heart Disease

Heart Sisters: Heart Attack Misdiagnosis in Women

Society for Women's Health Research
The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR®), is a national non-profit based in Washington D.C. that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease. SWHR is dedicated to transforming women’s health through science, advocacy, and education. Founded in 1990 by a group of physicians, medical researchers and health advocates, SWHR aims to bring attention to the variety of diseases and conditions that disproportionately or predominately affect women. For more information, please visit www.swhr.org. Follow us on Twitter at @SWHR. SWHR is a partner of Law Street Creative. The opinions expressed in this author’s articles do not necessarily reflect the views of Law Street.

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