Not only are we short on female scientists, we are deprived of the science of being female.
Author: Ellie Jackson
Editor: Rachel Rubinsohn
Artist: Lucie Gourmet
Androcentric bias refers to a preference for men or masculine interests, and is still a prevalent problem in 21st century research, despite the other advances in women’s rights. As a species, we are obsessed with how men and women differ, with over 30,000 scientific articles being published on sex differences between 2000 and 2015. So how come over 70% of patients in studies of heart diseases are male? Why did the US have to pass a bill in 1993 mandating that women must not be excluded from clinical research? This is unsurprising when we look at the stark truth of gender bias in science. The Nobel Prize is the highest accolade for scientific research, but in the 118 year history of the award, only 21 women have become laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine combined, compared to 586 men. These small numbers serve to highlight a much larger issue: how can science ever be fully objective without sufficient female representation?
The extent of this bias reaches one of the most famous scientific developments in history: evolution. Even the greatly hailed work of Charles Darwin had gender bias. He argued that women were less evolved than men by means of natural selection; males had to prove intelligence and strength to mate with a female partner, whereas females simply had to provide sexual attraction. Other scientists at the time postulated that as men traditionally were hunter-gatherers while women reared children and maintained the home, males were exposed to greater evolutionary pressure and thus had evolved more than females. This was particularly problematic because science, a supposedly objective measure of the world and how it is experienced, was now being used to reinforce women’s place at a lower social standing. Some of Darwin’s contemporaries used phrenology – the study of the shape and size of the skull – to justify women’s inferiority.
We are well aware that there are physiological differences between males and females – we possess different sex chromosomes, gonads and hormone profiles – but are our brains really that different? The truth is, in all studies of brain sex differences, there are such vast differences within male and female groups that there is no significant difference between the male and female brains. On average, two male brains will differ in macro and micro-structure by just as much as a male and female brain. Yet researchers still hunt down these differences and perpetuate the idea that there must be some intrinsic difference. We have become obsessed with quantifying the male and female as two separate entities to be studied that we forget about differences between individuals.
Such obsessions are dangerous. Women have been blatantly excluded from many clinical trials and scientific studies on the basis that their sex will result in data anomalies.
This has affected women in many ways, from female astronauts being pulled from space flights because space suits were designed to fit male bodies, to women being more likely to be injured on police raids as stab vests are not designed for breasts. Arguably, the most severe problems are in healthcare and drug development. Yentl syndrome describes the female-specific manifestation of heart failure, the second largest killer of women under 35. As women present different symptoms to the standardised male subject, they are more likely to be turned away from the emergency room or to be treated incorrectly. Even though there are now rules in place for how sex differences in clinical trials are adressed, 70% of heart trial patients are still male. Not only does androcentric bias skew our perspective of women, it is actively putting women at risk.
As a generation of future scientists, it is important that we are aware of the history of gender bias in science, and use it to conduct better, more impartial research. It is about time we update our ideas about the importance of the female in scientific study.
- Angela Sani, inferior
- J.A Berlin, S.S Ellenberg, Inclusion of women in clinical trials, BMC medicine 2009, issue 7, page 56
- S Vania, A Milkas, C Crysohoou, C Stefanadis 2015, coronary artery disease in women, from yentl syndrome to contemporary treatment. World journal of cardiology, volume 7, pages 10-18.
- Darwin, Charles. 1896. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton and Company.