Research studies focusing on women should not be sexist

By Copy Chief

Women in the sciences have been breaking the glass ceiling wide open since Marie Curie changed medicine forever when she brought her findings about radiation forward 80 years ago, but the scales remain uneven for men and women in the sciences.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Association for the Advancement of the Sciences in August 2012 found academic institutions still prefer hiring males over females. On the research end, many studies published every week address women in a condescending, narrow-minded way that does nothing to advance a more egalitarian view of gender.

Press releases reporting research studies are released to the media under sexist headlines such as this one from Aug. 19 “Love makes sex better for most women” and this from Aug. 17 “Risky situations increase women’s anxiety, hurt their performance compared to men,” both published by the American Sociological Association. The research studies themselves are published under more technical titles in the actual journals, but the results remain the same. The problem is twofold: Science writers report the study with a sexist spin as it is written in the press release, and even if the findings are unbiased, they are often lost in the haze of vague language.

It is a good thing that researchers are focusing on women at all, but these topics are too superficial and provide no answers to the observations they make. Instead, they serve to further accentuate the stereotyping of men and women.

The labeling of the studies is often misleading, which is scientifically irresponsible as well. For example, the findings in “Love makes sex better for most women,” a study from Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, makes the results sound sweeping for all women. What it fails to mention in the headline is that the sociologists only interviewed 95 women in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The limited sample size and geographical region could sway the results. For instance, the attitudes conveyed in the interviews could be completely different if the study was done in states such as Minnesota, California and Texas. What’s more is that it fails to contrast any relationship between men and women’s attitudes or to apply any meaningful use for this study. It instead becomes a mildly interesting semi-fact about women that could be used for good or ill against them.

This tendency is not unique. Another study released this past April titled “Researchers compare hip width and sexual behavior” from the University of Leeds concluded that women with wider hip circumferences tend to be more sexually active, which on the surface may sound like an epiphany, but is really nothing more than another unfulfilled question. After all, science begins with observations: If women with wider hips tend to engage in sex more, the researchers should investigate those cases further and find the reasons why.

True, women are physically and mentally different from men on many counts. They often merit separate studies, and the inclusion of females as test subjects was long-neglected. In May, the National Institutes of Health ordered research labs to begin including female test subjects—believe it or not, few labs included female rats in their test groups—to include findings on how drugs affect women as well as men. This was a positive use of the concept, as it benefits women without making them a foreign subject.

Fortunately, some scientists are aware of this lurking prejudice. A group of seven researchers published a joint commentary in “Nature” imploring society not to use their findings to blame mothers after a number of studies about epigenetic effects on babies—genetic traits that do not come from the genes themselves but the way the environment causes them to be expressed—emerged in the last few years. In this case, it would be easy to do so. The findings seem to indicate that some factors, such as trauma or nutrition, come directly from the mother’s behavior, but as the commentary in “Nature” asks, what about the contributions from the father?

These studies are not wrong in principle, but the execution makes them laughable and possibly damaging. To prevent possible repercussions, the universities sponsoring these studies must more carefully evaluate what the goal of the research is before funding it. At the other end of the process, the writers need to be careful of making sweeping statements about their findings. It takes hundreds of repetitions in a variety of conditions to justify a theory— presenting findings should always be done conditionally.

Having women in the lab is one thing, but treating them equally is another. Research studies must begin treating them as people, not a foreign specimen.