Institutionalizing sex differences: Room for nuance

If you’re interested in feminist science, you, like me, probably heard about the recent U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) call to balance sex of subjects in relevant studies. For example, Janine Clayton and Francis Collins write:

The NIH is now developing policies that require applicants to report their plans for the balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies in all future applications, unless sex-specific inclusion is unwarranted, based on rigorously defined exceptions.

Sounds great, right? If you’re interested in feminist science, you, like me, probably thought that (a) it really is great to pay attention to sex in humans, non-human animals, and cell lines, and also (b) that there is more to sex than difference, and (c) this could reinforce empirically-inaccurate and -inadequate notions that sex is a binary and females and males are dichotomous. Maybe you wanted to temper your enthusiasm for attention to sex (again! finally!) vs. over-attention to sex (again! still!).

Cue your superstar music because there is a great post that helps add nuance to what the policy needs to do, by Anne Fausto-Sterling and Daphna Joel.  They make the very important and clear point that, though many aspects of sex are largely dimorphic, most aren’t. For example: they note evidence that larger people should receive larger doses of some medications (using zolpidem as their example) than smaller people. Of course, men are on average larger than women – but should drug dose differentials be adjusted for sex because of sex differences in size? Wouldn’t it really make more sense to adjust dose based on people’s… size? That would avoid giving large women too little and small men too much. Here is the link.

So, for those of us who need one dose of nuance and two doses of empirical reality along with our sex differences, I’d recommend reading Fausto-Sterling and Joel’s well-thought-out and very concise post.

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