Better research thanks to more gender equal staff

A new article shows that women more often apply gender perspectives in their research. A diverse research group leads to better and more accurate knowledge about the world, according to Mathias Wullum Nielsen.

Gender balance among the research staff can result in knowledge that better corresponds with the world at large. This is both beneficial and fair, according to Mathias Wullum Nielsen, an assistant professor at Aarhus University. (Photo: Private)

“The universities must do a better job of attracting more women to research. Based on our study, a more gender-balanced, diverse research group results in more attention to gender and sex analysis – which in turn leads to better research,” says Mathias Wullum Nielsen, an assistant professor at Aarhus University.

The study demonstrates the mutual benefits of promoting both women’s participation as researchers and the integration of gender and sex analysis into medical research.

“Crucial to integrate gender and sex analysis into medical research”

The article, which was recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, examined one and a half million medical research papers. The authors studied the connection between the proportion of women authors on the team and whether the researchers had looked at gender and sex-related factors in relation to various medical conditions.

The research group found a correlation between the gender make-up of the research team and the use of gender and sex analysis in medical research. When the proportion of women authors increased, the chance that the research team integrated perspectives on gender and sex rose as well. In particular, studies with women as the first and last authors were more likely to employ gender and sex analysis.

“Attention to gender and sex analysis in medical research is important,” says Nielsen.

“Insights on gender and sex-related differences can lead to better, more specific knowledge about the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease – which both women and men can benefit from,” he states.

Nielsen just completed two years as a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University in the US, where he took part in the Gendered Innovations project. Gendered Innovations develops methods for integrating gender and sex analysis into scientific research and the development of new technological innovations.

“One area where we’ve seen a lack of attention to gender and sex is in studies of cardiovascular disease. More women than men die of these diseases. In spite of this, fewer women are represented in this kind of research,” Nielsen explains.

“Even in studies where both women and men are included in the sample, researchers don’t always consider potential gender and sex differences.”

“Osteoporosis is another example of a disease that traditionally has been studied as a ‘women’s disease’. But men comprise one-third of those who contract the disease, and they are therefore overlooked if research on osteoporosis does not incorporate gender perspectives,” says Nielsen.

“Gender balance is both useful and fair”

Nielsen thinks that the work to promote gender balance in research is often based on two arguments. One of these is fairness. According to this argument, better gender balance is fair and morally right. The other – which has been used a lot, especially more recently – has to do with utility. In this argument, a more even distribution of female and male researchers is seen as something that promotes better, more useful research.

“The distinction between the utilitarian argument and the fairness argument is somewhat exaggerated,” he says.

“Our study shows that the two arguments can go hand in hand. Gender balance in the research staff can lead to knowledge that better corresponds with the world, in part by integrating gender perspectives into research. This is both useful and fair,” Nielsen points out.

However, it is important that we move beyond questions of utility and fairness, according to Nielsen:

“More energy and resources should be used to examine how the research management creates the best possible conditions so that a more diverse group of people enjoy working at the universities.”

The research staff should reflect the population’s diversity

“Gender equality in the research staff may be significant for the kind of research conducted. For instance, a better gender balance in medical research likely increases the attention devoted to gender and sex analysis. But government authorities and funding agencies can also support women researchers’ advancement by prioritizing gender and sex analysis,” says Nielsen.

“We define an analysis of gender as a way to study the significance of variations in behaviour between women and men as two distinct groups. With regard to sex, we study biological differences between women and men in medicine, natural science and technology research,” Nielsen explains.

The research group in Gendered Innovations has held various workshops in cooperation with companies such as IBM and Facebook in which they try to improve products by performing a gender and sex analysis on them. A study conducted by other researchers showed that the ATMs in developing countries could improve by having icons in addition to text, since a large percentage of women in those countries are illiterate. Several other specific examples can be found on the project’s website.

Gender in medical research

During his postdoc at Stanford, Nielsen has also been involved in a project that develops new methods for measuring gender in health research.

In medicine, questions concerning biological sex have received far more attention than questions about gender. But according to Nielsen, the new form of analysis that the research group now wants to examine focuses on social and behavioural variations across the genders.

“Previous studies have shown that gender is significant for a number of health issues, such as lifestyle diseases and work-related health risks.”

Based on an extensive literature review and survey study, Nielsen and his colleagues are developing a new instrument to capture social and behavioural aspects of gender in health research. The research group focuses on gender roles, gender norms and gender relations.

The results will be published in 2018.

Translated by Connie Stultz. 

Gendered Innovations

The research project focuses on both biological sex and social gender in all stages of research and development, from the formulating research questions to interpreting data. The objective is to develop concrete methods of analysing relevant gender perspectives in research.

Read more about the method Gender and Sex Analysis in the description of the project Gendered Innovations at Stanford University.

Nielsen is also a project participant in the Nordic Centre for Research on Gender Equality in Research and Innovation (NORDICORE)

Contact information Mathias Wullum Nielsen