More Women Are Authoring Medical Research Than Ever Before
More women than ever before are authoring medical studies, according to a review of research published between 2008 and 2018 in the most prominent journals across nine major specialities: pediatrics, radiology, anesthesiology, obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, general medicine, dermatology, psychiatry, and oncology.
The gain is encouraging, but small; the number of female authors increased by 4% in 10 years, according to the review, which itself was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. However, the number of women as last authors — the most prestigious position of authorship, denoting seniority and leadership — increased by 8% during the same time. The review also found evidence of a pipeline of empowerment: Studies with a woman as last author, in acknowledgment of her seniority and leadership, were 13% more likely than studies with male last authors, to list women as first authors; first author is a position that typically denotes less experience and is a critical jumping-off point to building an academic career.
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Greater gender diversity in medical research can yield more innovative questions and insightful findings. Diverse — in every sense — research teams also help ensure research is inclusive, exploring health problems that affect less empowered groups. For instance, “as more women entered medical research in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers paid greater attention to women’s health issues such as heart disease, breast cancer and autoimmune diseases,” reported Virginia Gewin in the journal Nature last year.
But it’s not just an increase in gender diversity among authors that’s important to the advancement of science, but also in subjects. Historically, the majority of medical research, including drug trials, have only involved male animals. The hormonal cycles of female animals were deemed too ‘messy’ by (male) researchers; they added too much variability and would throw off results, the thinking went (even after hundreds of studies have found male animals experience just as many, and sometimes more unpredictable, hormone fluctuations as female). The result is that less is known about women’s biology and health, as compared to men’s, including how effective the solutions developed for shared health problems actually are for women.
In acknowledgement and correction of this massive scientific blind spot, the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health and its Canadian counterpart mandated in 2016 that all subsequent research they fund include female test subjects. But some question whether this is enough; the perspective of the researcher shapes the question from which the research starts, and the interpretation of results.
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“When females are studied through a male lens, the true crux of the research question for females can be missed,” writes Rebecca M. Shansky, PhD, in Science. “This issue is most evidently troublesome in neuroscience studies related to mood and anxiety disorders. Illnesses such as major depressive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are twice as prevalent in women, but common behavioral tests designed to model their symptoms in rodents were developed and validated in males.”
JoAnna Klein, in the New York Times, explores gender stereotypes in biomedical research and cites Shansky’s editorial. In research of PTSD: “Instead of freezing as males did, the females darted around during experimental tests. Without recognizing this behavior as different, rather than wrong, one might say females failed the task.”
While female researchers can be just as prone to making assumptions as male ones, it seems safe to say that more women in labs, and authoring papers — indeed more researchers of all stripes and all experiences — might go a long way toward considering differences not as wrong, but as different. And while we’ve made strides toward gender equality in medical research teams, the study authors note there’s still a long way to go: “disparity still exists, especially in the last author position,” they concluded.