Sexism in Science is Failing Rats and Humans Alike
by Chris Murphy (he/him)
Illustration by Jacqui Cox (she/her)
I’d always imagined the University of Otago to be a depraved cesspool of alcohol, drugs and flat initiations (it sort of is). However, I was surprised to meet some genuinely intelligent people on a recent visit to Ōtepoti. I was chatting with two PhD students about their research, when I learnt something that shocked me more than anything I’d seen or heard there (the bar was pretty high). They told me that most studies on humans and animals only include males. One of them studied neurology, and it was a struggle for her to even be allowed to include female rats in her trials, because it was just so uncommon. I couldn’t believe it. We quickly moved onto other topics, and the conversation became less coherent as the night went on. Despite a raging hangover the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why was this happening?
In medicine, and science generally, something will only get studied if someone takes an interest. When you have fewer women in the field, less research is going to be done into women’s health.
Female subjects have been excluded from most preclinical, medical and basic scientific studies, largely due to the assumption that the oestrogen cycle – particularly in rodents, but also in humans – created “too much variability” in the data. In statistics, variability is how different each of the numbers in a data set are. You want to minimise this, because if your data looks random, you can’t confidently say anything meaningful about it. So, there is some logic to this assumption. It isn’t just because nerds in lab coats think girls are icky – probably.
But this assumption is also deeply misogynistic – and it probably goes back to the old stereotype that “women are too complicated”. Is this assumption even correct? Probably not. Two separate studies that examined over 500 research papers involving mice found that females didn’t show any more hormonal variation than males. In some cases, male testosterone levels actually showed more variation, when taking into account age and their place in the mouse hierarchy (Scientifically, there are mouse chads and mouse betas, apparently). The most damning part is that there was no scientific reason to assume this in the first place. It’s been known for a long time that males also have a hormonal cycle. It makes no sense that studies only consider oestrogen cycles, and not testosterone.
And let’s not forget that research labs are full of testosterone. Scientific and medical research have always been dominated by men, especially in higher positions. A 2020 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women in the research arms of medical schools were significantly less likely to earn a promotion than men at the same stage in their careers, and these numbers hadn’t significantly improved since the late 70s. Sexual harassment is still a major problem in academic research, and remains a major reason why women choose to leave. In medicine, and science generally, something will only get studied if someone takes an interest. When you have fewer women in the field, less research is going to be done into women’s health.
It isn’t just female rodents who aren’t being represented. Women often aren’t represented in human drug trials or studies either. Even if they are, a 2022 study into cardiovascular clinical trials found that less than half of them reported sex or gender. This means that we often don’t know how drugs or diseases will affect men and women differently.
For example, the sleeping pill Ambien is absorbed more slowly by women than by men. But it took 20 years of women falling asleep in dangerous situations (such as while driving or operating machinery) before it was officially recommended that women take a lower dose. This happened because women weren’t included in the first two phases of Ambien’s original US trial – where they determine the safe and effective dosages. Because of this, the US, UK and Canada now mandate that women are included in all clinical trials. But it still doesn’t require that these studies report sex or gender. In Aotearoa, clinical trials are expected to adhere to international clinical practice standards, which include people of each sex, but there is no strict legislative requirement.
Gender doesn’t really exist outside of our heads. Animals have no gender. There are no boy rats, or girl rats, or non-binary rats. There are only male, female and intersex rats.
This highlights how harmful the gender binary is, and perhaps the idea of gender itself. It’s crucial that medical professionals and researchers recognise that sex and gender are not the same thing. Medical education is severely lacking on this front: a 2018 survey at Otago and Auckland universities found that 87% of medicine lecturers included little to no education on gender and sex differences in their papers.
Gender doesn’t really exist outside of our heads. Animals have no gender. There are no boy rats, or girl rats, or non-binary rats. There are only male, female and intersex rats. Gender is something humans invented. Sex is what we call the traits that allow sexual reproduction to happen. Sex manifests in many ways across different species and organisms – some species only have one sex, or neither. Some can change sex, and some don’t have sex at all and just clone themselves. Only humans give a shit about how someone’s genitals affect their identity; other animals are just out here trying to eat and fuck (though some humans are too, admittedly). It’s often repeated by transphobic cunts with podcasts, but there is no such thing as “biological gender.” Gender is not a biological phenomenon, it is a social one. The word “gender” is never used by biologists. Despite this, scientists have assumed things about the biology of animals for hundreds of years based on gendered stereotypes of men and women.
Saying that gender is a social construct isn’t “denying science”. If anything, it allows us to study the body in a more objective and scientific way. It allows us to build more inclusive research methods that benefit everyone. It’s why we need to keep striving to make academic science a more open, inclusive and equitable place.