Gendered Innovations: Making research better

Could your research be better if you thought more about gender? I’m not asking if you could say more about gender if you thought about gender; that much is obvious. No, I’m asking if the quality of your research results more broadly could be improved if issues of gender informed the methods you use and the questions you ask.

At the University of Tromsø, we suspect that gendered perspectives could make your research better, and so we’re kicking off a new project to explore these issues and to better communicate them to our students. We’re doing this to improve the quality of our science — anything that might have that effect, after all, deserves careful exploration.

We’re also doing it because our primary funding agencies will reward grants that include gendered perspectives, regardless of the field of the grant. This is true of the Research Council of Norway and it’s true of the EU’s upcoming Horizon 2020 program. Arvid Hallén, the Director of our Research Council, tells us how important this has become.

A gendered perspective is a criterium for all applications being evaluated by the Research Council of Norway.

Our project draws inspiration from an international enterprise highlighting the connection between overall research quality and the presence of gender-related questions and methods. The Gendered Innovations project — and its gorgeous website — offer several careful examples that could lead us to this conclusion.

Some of the easier cases come from medicine; I’ve written before about research on heart disease and osteoporosis (Your heart and my back: 2 examples of gender-enhanced science). Other cases come from engineering, where one example shows us that seatbelt designs that are better for everyone emerge from including gender or sex as a design issue (Pregnant crash test dummies).

At the Gendered Innovations site, new examples continue to appear. We can learn how gendered approaches to research give better results overall, ranging from our understanding of the effects of environmental chemicals on reproductive health to the design of video games.

We also learn that this work has to be approached with caution, as is clear in the example entitled De-Gendering the Knee: Overemphasizing sex differences as  a problem. In this case study, we see that changes in the way knee arthroplasty is performed may have gone too far in considering sex as a relevant factor. Differences that had been identified between the knees of men and women disappeared when standing height of the individual was considered. Furthermore, other problems emerged when prostheses were designed differently for men and women:

Sex must be analyzed, but overemphasizing sex to the exclusion of other factors is also a problem. First, overemphasizing sex may alter women’s medical decisions and outcome expectations, leading them to choose a more costly prosthesis. Moreover, surgeons using an unfamiliar implant to satisfy patient requests may have worse patient outcomes (Sampath et al., 2009). Second, a “female knee” may be a poor fit for some women and a good fit for some men, and physicians have expressed concern that a male patient may object to receiving an implant “designed for women” even if it offered the best fit for him (Blaha et al., 2009).

Cases like this one emphasize for us that the work of adding new perspectives to research and education must be done carefully.

My university was the first anywhere to adopt the recommendations of the genSET project at the European Commission, and in doing so, we have made the following commitment.

Scientists
 should
 be
 trained
 in
 using
 methods
 of
 sex
 and
 gender
 analysis.
 Both
 managerial
 levels
 and
 researchers
 should
 be
 educated
 in
 such
 sex
 and
 gender
 analysis.
 
 Training
 in
 methods
 in
 sex
 and
 gender
 analysis
 should
 be
 integrated
 into
 all
 subjects 
across 
all 
basic 
and 
applied 
science
 curricula.

Our new project is a step towards fulfilling this commitment. Research groups will be able to apply for funding for supplemental positions to bring gender perspectives into their ongoing research. Teaching programs will be able to apply for funding to develop gendered perspectives in their curricula. Our initial commitment is 2 million Norwegian crowns (EUR275k or USD350k). If you’re in Tromsø, I hope you’ll join this project. If you’re not, stay tuned for future updates.

The success of this project depends on critique and debate; please leave your thoughts here, and share this story on Twitter or Facebook.

About Curt Rice

My interest in leadership development at universities affects most of what I do, whether it’s working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access, promoting research-based education or just about anything else. I'm a professor at the University of Tromsø, where I've spent the last decade serving first as the head of a Center of Excellence (2002-2008) and then as the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) (2009-2013). I'm currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

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