Stanford historian explores how gender analysis leads to innovation

Working with an international team, Stanford history Professor Londa Schiebinger has used gender analysis to spark discovery in science and innovation in technology.

Professor Londa Schiebinger

Londa Schiebinger, a Stanford professor of the history of science, directs a program that explores the role of gender in all areas of science and health research. (Image credit: Daniel Pozo)

Doing research wrong costs lives and money. Ten drugs were recently withdrawn from the U.S. market because of life-threatening health effects – eight of these posed greater threats for women.

Clearly, doing research right has the potential to save lives and money, and this is the goal of the Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment project directed by Stanford history Professor Londa Schiebinger.

With an international team of more than 60 scientists, engineers and gender experts, Schiebinger has explored how gender analysis can open doors to discovery.

“Once you start looking, you find that taking gender into account can improve almost anything with a human endpoint – stem cell research, assistive technologies for the elderly, automobile design, transportation systems, osteoporosis research in men, and natural language processing,” Schiebinger said.

Led by Schiebinger, this game-changing initiative is now supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford, coined the term “gendered innovations” in 2005 and launched the project as a start-up at Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

Through a series of international workshops, drawing talents from across the United States, Europe and Canada, the Gendered Innovations group developed 23 case studies to demonstrate how sex and gender analysis has led to discovery in science and innovation in technology.

The idea, said Schiebinger, is that gender can be integrated as a variable into the earliest stages of research design – not considered after the fact when a product or drug runs into problems.

“The key move,” Schiebinger said, “is to incorporate gender as a variable when setting research priorities, methods and data gathering.”

Schiebinger is among the founders of this field in science. “When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there were few women professors, and the history of gender in science was not yet a topic of professional enquiry,” she said.

And today Schiebinger’s approach­ – designing research with gender in mind – is gaining traction. In December 2014, the EU Research and Innovation program identified 137 fields of science and technology where gender analysis could benefit research. These include computer hardware and architecture, nanotechnology, oceanography, geosciences, organic chemistry, aeronautics, space medicine, biodiversity, ecology and biophysics, among others.

Humanists, scientists and engineers

Schiebinger edited the recently published Women and Gender in Science and Technology, a four-volume reference work that contains 30 years of global interdisciplinary research for use by students and scholars.

Contributors include historians, who study the lives of female scientists within the context of institutions that for centuries held women at arm’s length; sociologists, who examine women’s access to the means of scientific production; biologists, who scrutinize how science has studied female and male bodies; cultural critics, who explore normative understandings of femininity and masculinity; and philosophers and historians of science, who analyze how gender has influenced the content and methods of science and technology.

Schiebinger said that Women and Gender in Science and Technology brings her field up to the present and can help shape future science.

“Basic to the book is its three-pronged approach,” Schiebinger said. The first, “Fix the Numbers of Women,” focuses on increasing the numbers of women participating in science and engineering.  The second, “Fix the Institutions,” promotes gender equality in careers through structural change in research organizations.  The third, “Fix the Knowledge” or “gendered innovations,” stimulates excellence in science and technology by integrating sex and gender analysis into research.

Among the many contributors is Stanford’s Paula Findlen, the Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History. Findlen, whose research interests include early modern Europe and the history of science, wrote about Laura Bassi’s exceptional career in physics in 18th-century Bologna. Findlen has found that “many of the issues that we still grapple with today can benefit from a long historical perspective.”

Schiebinger is energized by her work across vastly disparate fields. Interdisciplinary research depends on careful listening.

“At our Gendered Innovations workshops,” Schiebinger said, “I would say the first session was devoted to syncing up – understanding various disciplinary approaches, how people express themselves, and how they expect information to be delivered. We did a lot of focus groups for the Gendered Innovations website in order for me, a humanist, to understand, for example, how an engineer reads. It keeps you intellectually honest.” 

A matter of life and death

Since 1993, the National Institutes of Health have required that women and minorities be included in clinical research. However, no such regulations apply to preclinical research.  Experiments done in women may not have been tested first in female mice or rats — “a potentially dangerous situation,” Schiebinger said.

Recent studies have shown that 80 percent of rodent drug studies are conducted using male models. This means that not only are females left out, but that research sees nothing unique to females in the initial stages of research.

“We’re missing the opportunity to build our foundation of knowledge of just about every biological system more accurately at the outset, which should be a fundamental goal of science,” said Marcia Stefanick, research professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center and of obstetrics and gynecology and co-director of the Gendered Innovations project.

Last May, the U.S. National Institutes of Health took steps to address these issues by rolling out plans to require sex and gender inclusion in future preclinical research.

Schiebinger offered reflections on gendered innovations at an October NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health workshop on methods and techniques for integrating the biological variable “sex” into preclinical research. She noted that new NIH policies are crucial to ensuring the health of women and men everywhere.

Introducing Gendered Innovations’ findings at the European Parliament in 2012, the EU former commissioner for research, innovation and science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said, “Gender analysis contributes to excellence.”

As Schiebinger said, “There is much work to be done.”

Researchers need to learn sophisticated methods of sex and gender analysis, she said. And universities need to incorporate these insights and methods into their curricula, especially in engineering and the natural sciences.

“But eyes have been opened – and we will not return to a world that ignores gender.”