π Science and technology π Society
Does science need more women?

Gendered innovation: the need for equality?

Annalisa Plaitano, science communicator
On April 13th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Marianne Blanchard
Marianne Blanchard
Lecturer in Sociology at Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès
Key takeaways
  • In the sciences that study human phenomena – biology and medicine, but also technology for human use – the failure to take gender into account in research distorts the results or gives a partial view of the subject studied.
  • This approach, called “gendered innovation”, was formalised in 2009 by the science historian Londa Schiebinger.
  • A woman's heart attack, for example, has different symptoms from those of men. Yet today we are so sensitised to recognising the symptoms of a male heart attack that it can delay diagnosis and response treatment in women.
  • Science needs all the talent, ideas and innovation it can get. Women make up half of the population, a partially untapped potential that we should certainly not deprive ourselves of.

In my younger days when I was pained by half edu­cat­ed, loose and inac­cu­rate ways which we all had, I used to say, ‘How much women need exact sci­ence.’ But since I have known some work­ers in sci­ence who were not always true to the teach­ing of nature, who have loved self more than sci­ence, I have said, ‘How much sci­ence needs women.’ – Maria Mitchell1.

Does sci­ence real­ly need women, as Maria Mitchell, the first pro­fes­sion­al female astronomer in the Unit­ed States, argued? Today, a num­ber of stud­ies seem to strong­ly sup­port this view. The main argu­ment is that the pres­ence of women in research is not only ben­e­fi­cial to the researchers them­selves, but also nec­es­sary for the advance­ment of knowl­edge and eco­nom­ic development.

For exam­ple, female inno­va­tion leads to the pro­duc­tion of objects and ser­vices that are more suit­able for all types of con­sumers, thus increas­ing the num­ber of poten­tial clients and buy­ers. In addi­tion, dig­i­tal com­pa­nies are report­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing ICT pro­fes­sion­als, with expect­ed Europe-wide vacan­cies in this impor­tant sec­tor. Female researchers and engi­neers are there­fore vital to Europe’s eco­nom­ic growth, and their pre­ma­ture exit from careers – all too com­mon – is a def­i­nite loss of talent.

Gender and innovation

At first glance, it is there­fore an issue of num­bers. But beyond that the pres­ence of women in STEM (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics) brings with it the diver­si­ty and plu­ral­i­ty need­ed to explore new ideas and orig­i­nal research. The fact that sex and gen­der analy­sis in research leads to excel­lence was for­malised in 2009 by his­to­ri­an of sci­ence Lon­da Schiebinger of Stan­ford University.

This approach, called “gen­dered inno­va­tion”, for exam­ple, broad­ens the scope of research and poten­tial hypothe­ses, improv­ing exper­i­men­tal designs or on the end-users of a prod­uct. Not tak­ing gen­der into account in research dis­torts the results or gives a par­tial view of the sub­ject stud­ied, espe­cial­ly in sci­ences that study human phe­nom­e­na such as biol­o­gy and med­i­cine, but also tech­nol­o­gy for human use.

Per­haps the most emblem­at­ic exam­ple is that of the female heart attack. We have all been taught to recog­nise the symp­toms of a heart attack: chest pains, pain in the left arm. How­ev­er, it turns out that these symp­toms con­cern the dis­ease in men, where­as in women they dif­fer to the point of delay­ing diag­no­sis and treat­ment. In women, con­cern should be expressed in the pres­ence of jaw pain, nau­sea, vom­it­ing and dizzi­ness. In addi­tion, typ­i­cal detec­tion meth­ods such as coro­nary angiograms as less effec­tive at detect­ing heart attacks in women, because they are caused by the small­est blood ves­sels, which can­not be detect­ed with this diag­nos­tic technique.

Oth­er exam­ples include car safe­ty tests that use human-shaped crash test dum­mies. Pro­tec­tive devices test­ed on male bod­ies have caused more injuries, even fatal ones, to women and even more so to preg­nant women. Today there are woman-shaped dum­mies and even foe­tus-shaped ones! Think also of osteo­poro­sis in men, which was rarely diag­nosed because it was asso­ci­at­ed with menopausal women. The intro­duc­tion of the gen­der fac­tor in the study of these dis­eases has allowed a bet­ter con­sid­er­a­tion of pop­u­la­tion health. Even out­side the field of health, biased results can be found in the fields of speech syn­the­sis, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and algo­rithms, or in the use of means of trans­port and in the approach to cli­mate change.

More women = higher GDP ?

In 2013, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s study “Women active in the ICT sec­tor” esti­mat­ed that if the per­cent­age of women in infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy (ICT) fields were com­pa­ra­ble to that of men, Euro­pean GDP would increase by about €9bn per year2. Some of these fig­ures even show that com­pa­nies that employ more women in man­age­ment posi­tions are 35% more prof­itable and pro­vide share­hold­ers with 34% more prof­it3.

Diversifying ideas, diversifying interpretations

Mar­i­anne Blan­chard is a lec­tur­er in soci­ol­o­gy at INSPE Midi-Pyrénées – Uni­ver­sité Toulouse 2. She works on women’s issues in sci­ence. “Let’s start with the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions that have been giv­en his­tor­i­cal­ly. The issue was first raised to ensure a suf­fi­cient pool of can­di­dates for pro­fes­sions that devel­oped strong­ly from the 1960s. Then it was a ques­tion of equi­ty: men and women should have equal access to all professions.”

Today, many stud­ies have shown how an all-male sci­ence can be biased, con­trary to the declared ide­al of objec­tiv­i­ty and neu­tral­i­ty. “Bias­es that are evi­dent both in the pro­to­cols and in the way they are pre­sent­ed, such as the vision of the pas­sive ovum wait­ing to be fer­tilised by con­quer­ing sper­ma­to­zoa. Diver­si­fy­ing the recruit­ment of sci­en­tists also means diver­si­fy­ing the approach­es and there­fore the results.”

Nev­er­the­less, a counter-argu­ment still echoes that there are female-pre­dom­i­nant pro­fes­sions does not both­er any­one. Mar­i­anne Blan­chard explains, “Obvi­ous­ly no one real­ly cares about the lack of male child­min­ders or care work­ers (or con­verse­ly female lor­ry dri­vers), as these are con­sid­ered to be low pres­tige pro­fes­sions. Con­verse­ly, sci­en­tif­ic pro­fes­sions are, at least his­tor­i­cal­ly, con­sid­ered impor­tant in our soci­eties. But above all, sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies – par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties – remain the main route to posi­tions of pow­er, espe­cial­ly in France. So, this brings us back to the issues of dis­ci­pli­nary hier­ar­chy: we are less inter­est­ed in the less aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly and social­ly pres­ti­gious sectors.”

Even if cer­tain sec­tors of pow­er are occu­pied by a major­i­ty of women – 66% of mag­is­trates in France are women, for exam­ple – these pro­fes­sions remain rare. And as for sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines where there is a female major­i­ty, the pro­por­tions are not often in the same orders of mag­ni­tude. When you look at the CNRS, in none of the insti­tutes are there more than 50% women, where­as in the Insti­tute of Math­e­mat­i­cal and Sim­i­lar Sci­ences, there are more than 80% men.

Further reading


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