By TESSA WEBB
Women make up the majority of the world’s population. So why are they so absent from research? This inequality is present not only in terms of female scientists but also in the subjects themselves. And the absence of data is leading to a discrepancy in outcomes which may only be compounded in the future.
Women’s physiology is treated as an outlier in the medical industry. This exclusion has a snowball effect, as neglecting to use women in the initial stages of research often prevents them from being used in comparative experiments or longitudinal studies. Natural bodily processes such as menstruation, menopause, and breastfeeding are seen as uncontrollable variables which need to be cleansed from data. Admittedly, they can complicate analysis and data collection, but nevertheless are important factors to consider in the development of medication and research. Drugs are not tested on women, which leads to a higher rate of side effects, simple ineffectiveness, overmedication.
Furthermore, physiological differences in average height, weight, body composition are ignored by the use in the scientific community of the “reference man ”, the default human used in studies, who is aged 25-30 and weighs 70 kilograms. This doesn’t represent women at all but also excludes the majority of men!
Clinical trials which do include women are increasing, which is fantastic. But they are often not desegrated, meaning it is impossible to use the data to discover sex-related differences, and those that do may neglect to track menstrual cycles. Recently, many people experienced the mysterious impacts of the Coronavirus vaccines on their period. Though this is not believed to be harmful, false claims spread through social media that vaccines impact fertility made it vital that these concerns were addressed.
Lack of research also restricts women’s ability to reach peak performance on the sports field. Hormone cycles contribute to performance and injury susceptibility, so failing to address this leaves a huge amount on the table. Women participate in sports at a lower rate; maybe more data on female athletes could help them avoid injury and balance, maximizing health and performance.
Even less attention has been devoted to the medical needs of gender minorities such as trans or intersex people, who come under constant medical scrutiny yet have very little resources devoted to their health.
This issue is rising in prominence; a book about the subject “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez launched to international acclaim, and research papers are attempting to quantify the disparity in research. However, it has not been adequately addressed despite the advances being made in many other spaces for women.
The data gap’s implicitness and unintentionality are its greatest danger. This is no grand scam, but the systemic and compounding impact of years of misunderstanding.
In the digital age, we are becoming increasingly dependent on data. This could be heralded as an advancement to bring about the end of human prejudices and create an equal eutopia! Unfortunately, the opposite seems more likely. While humans can be aware of their unintentional bias and actively take steps to avoid it, AI has no such conscience. Alarm bells are ringing in the tech community over the way that these technologies are trained on limited data sets, which causes them to discriminate against or disregard ethnic minorities and non-white people. This trend is also shown in CV scanners which are more likely to select male candidates over women, regardless of qualifications. The research gap has caused serious health risks; now, social progress could also be derailed by data.
TESSA WEBB is a small-town girl from friendly Feilding who ran her way to North Carolina. Currently living her American dream studying Political Science, eating frozen custard, and staying on that student-athlete grind.
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