“Females are so complicated, so we just don’t study them”

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One of the things I spoke about during my EAPC plenary in Berlin was sex bias in animal models. I referenced a study which found that over 80% of basic science research is done with male rodents because female rodents are deemed ‘too troublesome’.

A very interesting discussion paper published last week in Science sheds more light on this phenomenon and grabbed my attention immediately with this opener:

‘One of the most deep-seated misconceptions about the human psyche is that men are simple and women are complicated’.

The author, Dr. Rebecca Shansky, argues that this conceptualisation helps to preserve the patriarchy by presenting women’s ‘disordered, unstable yin to men’s rational, orderly yang’.

She focuses particularly on gendered understandings of hormones. Women’s hormones are still invoked as a reason for our ’emotional behaviour’. Ignoring the fact that men actually have hormones too. What is really worrying is the view that women’s ovaries ‘make data from female animals messier and more variable than data from males’. Dr Shansky comprehensively deconstructs this idea. She also points out how dangerous it has been for medicine overall:

‘This biases not just the subjects chosen, but also experimental design, data interpretation, and the peer review of grants and manuscripts when female animals are included in experiments. And because basic science informs clinical developments, the current understanding of how to most effectively treat disease in humans is similarly unbalanced’.

It is obvious that there is a need for much more critical analysis about the role of cultural understandings of men and women in determining the evidence base underpinning all aspects of medical science, including that pertaining to palliative care.

The paper was also the subject of a good piece in the New York Times if you want to read more.

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