Thinking about sex, gender helps scientists improve research

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Thinking about sex and gender would help scientists improve their research, according to the experts.

In an article in Nature, five experts pointed out that incorporating sex (as the biological attribute distinguishing females, males or intersex/hermaphrodite individuals) and gender (psychological, social and cultural factors affecting how an individual identifies in society) could improve experiments, reduce bias and create opportunities for discovery and innovation.

“It’s striking to what degree sex and gender are overlooked in science,” said co-author Dr Robert Ellis, of the University of Exeter. “We need to include this at every level of research and in everything we do, or provide robust scientific justification as to why sex or gender are unimportant, based on experimental evidence.

“Sex and gender are increasingly seen as important in research, but misconceptions and under-consideration still persist. We know, for example, that researchers’ sex can affect how they interpret their observations, so this should be considered during the research process,” he said.

A study in mice showed, surprisingly, that pain levels the animals exhibited changed depending on whether a male researcher was in the room. Researchers concluded that the animals responded to a scent associated with men. What’s more, whilst both female and male animals showed this response, female mice were more sensitive.

The experts say the goal is to “increase transparency, promote inclusion and reset the research default to carefully consider sex and gender, where appropriate.” For instance, one would hardly assume that social robots are attributed a male or female gender.

The Nature “Perspective” sets out a “roadmap” and calls on researchers, funding agencies, journals and universities to coordinate efforts to implement robust methods of sex and gender analysis. It concludes: “Eyes have been opened, and by integrating sex and gender analysis into their work, researchers can enhance excellence and social responsibility in science and engineering.”

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