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Sex and gender analysis needs a more prominent role in research

Researchers, policymakers and funders have to take more account of the effect of sex and gender in scientific research. This is the view presented in an advice paper published by LERU, the League of European Research Universities. The lead author is Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk.

Female crash test dummies

Sex (the biological differences between men and women) and gender (the cultural differences) are highly relevant in research. To give you a few examples, the symptoms of a heart attack are different in women than in men, using female crash test dummies leads to better vehicle safety standards and eating disorders in young men are underdiagnosed and therefore undertreated.


LERU argues for greater emphasis on Gendered Research and Innovation (GRI) in the funding, design, content and implementation of research. The reasoning is that more recognition of the ‘sex and gender’ factor within scientific research will generate innovation, and that anyone who ignores this is wasting money – and even human lives. LERU will present its paper at a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday 16 September, and a response to the advice will be given by, among others, Viviane Willis-Mazzichi, head of the Gender sector of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

A man’s heart or a woman’s heart?

The Dutch Heart Foundation is conducting a campaign to make women and healthcare professionals more aware that the symptoms of heart disease are different in men and women. The episode of RTL Late Night shown on 14 September featured Dr Harriette Verwey, a cardiologist at LUMC. ‘For too long, researchers thought that men and women are the same. We now know they are very different.’ She explains on the Hartstichting website: ‘Everything we know about cardiovascular diseases comes from research performed mainly with men, but the simple fact that the female X chromosome has 1098 genes and the male Y chromosome has 86 genes means you can’t just say: this is a human being, and what applies for men also applies for women. That’s not how it works.’

Research funding

Researchers wanting to obtain European funds are required to take account of GRI, because the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme – with a budget of 80 billion euros for research and innovation – stipulates for many of the research proposals that sex and gender analysis must be integrated in the research. As Horizon 2020 says: ‘This helps improve the scientific quality and societal relevance of the knowledge, technology and/or innovation generated.’

Best practice: female birds

In de LERU-paper staan ook concrete voorbeelden van onderzoek van diverse universiteiten, dat rekening houdt met sekse- en genderverschillen. Uit Leiden komt het voorbeeld van het onderzoek van biologe Katharina Riebel naar de sekseverschillen in de ontwikkeling van zang bij vogels.

More attention

In the paper, Professor Buitendijk and her co-author Dr Katrien Maes, Chief Policy Officer of LERU, argue that systematic attention should be paid to biological differences and societal expectations by university managements and researchers, as well as by governments, research funders and academic journals. GRI must be an integral part of the research policies of all the stakeholders.

Twenty recommendations

The authors present twenty recommendations, such as:

For universities:

  • Create awareness in researchers, and provide them with tools

  • Offer incentives for multidisciplinary collaboration

  • Allocate internal funds

  • Identify experts

  • Integrate GRI into the teaching

  • Enter into a dialogue with the government  

For government:

  • Include GRI in research policies and programmes

  • Provide information and training for researchers

  • Be aware of the need for GRI when funding research

For research funders:

  •  Use the approach taken by the EU in the Horizon 2020 programme

For academic journals:

  • Develop clear guidelines for authors

  • Set standards for the inclusion of GRI in publications

Leiden is leading the way

Leiden University is leading the way in terms of including gender in the research agenda. In March 2014, Simone Buitendijk organised a symposium on the importance of sex and gender in research. At the symposium she said: ‘If we in the Netherlands wish to remain leaders in research, we need to be truly innovative. And this means paying more attention to the potential role of sex and gender differences. If we fail to do this, we will miss out on European research funds. Because Horizon 2020 recognises that if we do not compel researchers to reflect on the question of who their research applies to, they run a serious risk of having a blind spot for half the population, namely women. How innovative and applicable can research be to the challenges faced by our world if it is mainly concerned with the problems of just half of that world?’

Leiden University is one of the 21 members of the League of European Research Universities (LERU). LERU regularly publishes papers and reports containing analyses, policy proposals and concrete recommendations for policymakers, universities, researchers and other stakeholders.

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