Science and Feminism: Why Each One Needs the Other

Woman Looking In Microscope

WE TEND TO think of science as unbiased, objective, without political slant. However, science, like anything else – think education, health care, law – does not exist in a vacuum, it exists within our society and so it reflects our society’s ideology. This means that as we live in a patriarchal capitalist society, our science is a product of that. Recently, this idea has been catching on – The New York Times reported that health researchers are being encouraged, monetarily, to balance out the gender bias in scientific studies. The National Institutes of Health is giving out grants to persuade researchers to enlist more women when investigating health issues and drugs.

The Times reports that the gender bias problem begins with animal testing. Most of that is done with male animals as, apparently, scientists have believed “the hormonal cycles of female animals would add variability and skew study results.”

So, because females have hormone cycles that fluctuate throughout the month, enough for them to be seen as an obstacle to research goals, women are left out of science… because the scientists don’t think our biological difference matters or is of any consequence? One might imagine that if a hormone cycle could throw off your research data, then it might just throw off the impact of a drug or change the way women experience a disease, too.

Seeing as how we already try to get rid of the hormone cycle and dismiss it as unimportant by over-prescribing hormonal birth control methods that suppress and replace it with a synthetic, one-note stream of chemical compounds, this news shouldn’t be all that surprising. But, if we generally accept women’s cycles as the source of so many problems – acne, depression, anxiety, and cancer, to name a few – and almost see those cycles as an illness in themselves, then why would we not think that they might need consideration when looking for a treatment, protocol, or cure? Perhaps if hormone cycles were studied, we might get better treatments for health issues that mostly impact women.

It’s as if women’s hormone cycles only matter when it’s most convenient and profitable for Big Pharma, but otherwise they don’t. And it’s like science values women just as much as our society does, as a whole. Most scientists probably aren’t consciously sexist, but all scientists do work within a context of sexism.

The Times also reports that reducing “variability” makes it “easier to detect the effect” of a drug in a research study. It’s also cheaper as more testing is required to take account of female cycles, hence the need for additional funding via the NIH. However, ignoring the biological difference might prevent researchers from finding the source and process of a disease, and therefore it benefits both sexes to have more women involved in tests.

Right now, though, most treatments are developed with men in mind, which is a frightening thought when you consider the number of injuries and deaths related to pharmaceutical drugs – 270 a day, double the number that die in car accidents (and that’s when the drugs are taken as prescribed and the cause of death is a known side effect). How many overdoses, side effects and adverse reactions are caused by lack of testing on women?

In example, as discussed by Martha Weinman Lear, also in the Times, a woman’s experience of early signs of a heart attack are different to that of a man, and yet most of us only know what to look for from the male perspective. It is only relatively recently that heart attacks in women have been studied, even though heart problems are the cause of more female deaths than cancer, and still women only make up 24% of participants in heart-related research studies. A higher number of men have heart attacks, but more women die of heart attacks as a result of us not knowing what we should be worried about and doctors not seeing the symptoms.

Dr. Janine Austin Clayton of the NIH told the Times, “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.” As a result of this lack of understanding of the whole body impact of the female hormone cycle, researchers have learned to just skip it entirely. If so little is understood about female biology, it makes sense that we have such a one-size-fits-all way of dealing with women’s health issues. For many, it’s the birth control pill that’s used as treatment and I’ve written elsewhere about how ineffective that can be. Dr Clayton is determined that scientists start seeing sex as a vital biological variable.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced, earlier this year, that it’s embarking on a search for feminist biologists, revealing that the women’s studies department is offering a life sciences fellowship to feminists. On why science has a gender bias, Janet Hyde of the University has said, “I think part of the reason is that many scientists believe that science is very objective and factual. It’s a wonderful aspiration, but it’s actually not true. You know, any scientist has his or her own point of view and there are things like confirmation bias. We want to confirm our own theories.” Their first fellow will study the evolution of childbirth by studying female pelvises of human fossils. Up to this time, only male pelvises have been studied.

Not only could feminism in science affect our future, it could also change our past. So many assumptions about human evolution have been made with a gender bias, often as a result of an unconscious desire to justify and support the status quo. Perhaps feminist science could provide support for a feminist society.

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