Good science must be done integrating gender


Gender measures are sometimes perceived as something exclusively ideological. However, they serve to pay more attention to the complex reality that surrounds us: from the design of seat belts and space suits to the research of new drugs, when science does not attend to that complexity, it generates biases.

The Integration of Gender Analysis in Research (IAGI) not only responds to the great current social sensitivity on gender issues, but is the result of decades of rethinking the prevailing knowledge models.

When we refer to “gender and research” in public spheres, we integrate very varied aspects that range from the field of human resources (the composition of research staff) to purely epistemological issues. This vision was already collected in 2012 as one of the priorities of the European Research Area.

Since 2003, the She Figures reports have monitored various indicators relating to gender distribution in European higher education and scientific institutions.

Similarly, the bodies of the Spanish science and technology system have been adopting similar measures as part of their own policies. In the case of the CSIC , for example, already integrating measures in this regard into its 2004 strategic plan.

We all feel challenged by certain topics, while others are foreign to us or we don’t even have the adequate training to perceive them. Androcentric biases in studies on human evolution and primatology , for example, were identified thanks to the massive incorporation of women into academia in the 1970s.

Thus, a greater diversity in research teams can promote adding new points of view on a problem or methodology to be developed.

All this implies also assuming that scientific disciplines have inertia resulting from their own history, which generate concepts and theoretical frameworks that condition our ways of looking at and evaluating that reality. But above all, the Integration of Gender Analysis in Research means recognizing the enormous biological and social complexity (of sex and gender, respectively) of the reality that surrounds us and the need to develop ad hoc methodologies to address it .

The importance of addressing the complexity of gender and sex

Sex can lead to physical, anatomical and physiological differences in individuals. That is, a different physical appearance and also other specific biochemical or behavioral issues. Not only that, but some species of fish, for example, mutate their sex depending on the temperature , which can put that population at risk and produce a cascading effect of changes in the ecosystem.

In medicine, most clinical studies have been conducted on males . This selection has been justified by the difficulty involved in identifying the female response to certain drugs and treatments as a consequence of the hormonal cycle . But the argument hides that biological complexity , made up of males and females, as well as intersex individuals and currently also transgender.

All these groups present natural or acquired characteristics through treatments that must be taken into account to assess their health, for example. Sex-disaggregated data is still missing from many investigations, so we lack understanding of certain phenomena (the universal applicability of some research results can be debated).

Although gender is frequently used as a synonym for sex, gender (from a binary perspective) is defined and constructed as the set of values ​​and behaviors associated with each sex that vary historically, socially, and culturally . Being (and behaving like) a woman or a man in Victorian England meant different things than it does in the 21st century.

In addition, we associate activities and roles with both genders, we generate ideas around masculinity and femininity, and we even produce what we could call ecosystems of ideas, concepts, values, and images for each of them. We participate to a large extent in reality in a differentiated way and we have different consumption patterns even with respect to the use of public spaces .

When science simplifies reality

The use of the male body as a universal model has been repeated up to the present. The example of vehicle seat belts is well known, in whose design (at the time for reasons of gender, since women did not drive) the female anatomy was not taken into account .

Similarly, NASA was heavily criticized in 2019 when an all-female mission was unable to carry out a spacewalk due to a sizing issue with spacesuits.

Recognizing the complexity regarding sex and gender has profound consequences for how we approach the different stages of the research process. Not only conceptually, but in the elaboration of the questions, the sampling, the criteria and methods of analysis, the interpretation of the results and their dissemination.

Scientific knowledge is incremental: it is built on the basis of previous knowledge and, although it may surprise us, this complexity has not always been recorded or not in all areas of knowledge (data disaggregated by sex and gender). All of this configures the reality that science studies and the day-to-day life of researchers. Therefore, research that does not take into account the gender dimension is not considered neutral, but “blind” to gender (from English, gender-blind ).

Integrating the gender dimension brings to the table important ethical questions that have to do with the recognition of others and of their own voice and with the investment of public resources in the truly collective improvement of living conditions.

The Integration of Gender Analysis in Research also evaluates the disciplines, becomes aware of the biases and the relationship of the academy with its context, and generates a higher quality of analysis methods. In short, and as numerous academics have claimed, it is fundamentally about doing quality science or “good science” .

Author Bio: Debora Zurro is a Senior Scientist in Prehistoric Archaeology at the Milá y Fontanals Institution for Humanities Research (IMF-CSIC)