Women Are More Likely to Consider Sex and Gender in Disease Risk Studies

Medical studies authored by women are more likely to include an analysis of sex and gender effects than studies where women researchers didn't take part.

A new analysis of 1.5 million medical papers shows studies co-authored by women are more likely to address gender and sex differences when it comes to disease risk. That finding, published Nov. 6 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, calls attention to the need for more gender diversity in scientific research.

Mathias Nielsen, an assistant professor of political science at Denmark’s Aarhus University, led the research team, who analyzed records of medical studies on a variety of global diseases gathered from several online databases.

To determine the gender of the authors, the researchers fed the studies into a name-to-gender assignment algorithm, checked 500 results manually in order to validate accuracy. They then identified studies involving gender and sex analysis by matching the medical study records with the GenderMed database, an archive of all existing medical studies that analyze gender and sex differences.

The researchers looked at the total proportion of women in the group of authors, as well as whether the first author was a woman, and whether the last author was a woman. All three factors positively influence the likelihood that the study would include a gender and sex analysis. Women comprised 49 percent of the first authors in studies that included analysis of gender and sex versus 40 percent of first authors in studies that did not, for example.

“Gender equality policies in science are currently divided into two pillars: The first concerns activities aimed at supporting women’s advancement as researchers,” Nielsen told Seeker. “The other is concerned with encouraging gender and sex analysis to enhance the accuracy, generalizability, and applicability of scientific knowledge.”

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Nielsen said their goal was to tease out the link between these two pillars and answer the question of whether a relationship exists between women’s participation as researchers and the attention devoted to gender and sex analysis in medical research.

An important distinguishing factor in the study is the difference between gender and sex. “Sex concerns biological and physiological differences between male and female subjects,” Nielsen said. “Gender is more about the cultural norms and expectations. It’s about the social attitudes and behaviors associated with being a man and a woman.”

Nielsen noted that in science there is more information available about biological sex differences rather than gender differences, but the latter is crucial to understanding disease prevention and treatment.

“Health-related lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and exercise have been shown to vary along gendered lines [and] gender roles have also been shown to influence patients’ perception of pain in medical treatment,” Nielsen said.

“Gender and sex analysis is about analyzing potential sex and gender differences that may influence the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases that affect both women and men,” he said. “It’s about enhancing the precision of medical analysis.”

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The study builds on previous research that found diversity improves science in all sorts of ways, ranging from increased profitability for individual firms to higher impact factors with papers coauthored by a group of diverse researchers.

“Allowing a variety of perspectives and worldviews is important for science,” Nielsen said. “We need more systematic research analyzing how other diversity-related factors may influence research outcomes.”

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