The March for Science… and Politics?

This is a guest post by Anne Fausto-Sterling!

The January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, DC was quite the eye-opener. I am not a naïve marcher, since my first such trek to Washington dates back some 60 years to the 10,000 strong 1958 Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools. So I fully expected to see signs and slogans pledging solidarity with immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and women. I did not anticipate that the first signs I would see would be about science.

Editor’s note: Remember all those witty signs, way back when, ONLY MONTHS AGO…

Given this existential moment, when the very idea that there are facts and true things is under assault, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But still. As the geek at the party, inured to people announcing–right after being told that I am a biologist–that in high school they hated biology, I was fascinated. Participants in the March on Washington made it clear that the meaning of science itself is woven into our current political conflicts, and a group of scientists responded by announcing a March for Science, to be held on Earth Day– April 22, 2017. The organizers–an archeologist, a health educator, and a physiologist [Editor’s note: Can you believe I had to add in an Oxford comma here? That is the real scandal.]-–are not international science stars but rather educators and scholars who work “in the trenches”, and this is one interesting component of the march.

Indeed almost immediately the hashtags #ThisIsWhataScientistLooksLike and #ActualLivingScientist appeared on twitter and then on the March for Science Facebook page. Soon hundreds of moving portraits of working scientists materialized—some by the scientists themselves, some by children honoring their parents, some focusing on the human story, and many joyfully zeroing in on caterpillars, cheetahs, glaciers, molecules, and atoms. The resulting picture displays diversity in the scientific workforce–white, person of color, old, young, male, female, field biologist, theoretical physicist, from many different nationalities and in the many things we study. Putting human faces on science produces an inspiring montage. And what we investigate perfuses all aspects of human life and the natural world.

But humans, even—or perhaps especially–-scientists, are a quarrelsome species [editor’s note: I disagree!]. So when the organizers announced the goals and basic principles intended to guide and unify the March, a crack or two appeared in the growing wall of science. The organizers hope to unite marchers around a set of basic principles: science serves the common good, cutting edge science education is crucial to democracy, public outreach should be inclusive, and we should use science to make evidence-based policy and regulations that are in the public interest. The April 22nd March itself has five more focused goals:

  • To humanize science;
  • To partner with non-scientists;
  • To advocate for open, inclusive and accessible science;
  • To support scientists;
  • (and, perhaps most important of all) To affirm science as a democratic value.

These seem non-controversial to me [Editor’s note: Me too! But then, again, we are feminist scientists…], although there certainly are those who think that science is and ought to be an elite activity. But when organizers articulated specific Diversity Principles, supporting inclusion, diversity and equality in science and stating that citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community, it was

Editor’s note: I like!

not the alt-right or climate deniers, but some very prominent scientists who objected. At the end of January 2017, psychologist Steven Pinker set scientists snarling at each other by tweeting: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric”. Nor is Pinker the only one to paint with the tar of anti-science, scientists who emphasize diversity and who think that scientists should use their talents to lessen inequality. Two recent publications, the first from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and the second from a less well-known neuroscientist/science journalist Debra Soh strike a similar chord.

Coyne holds court on his blog “Why Evolution is True”, where, at the end of 2016, he posted a piece entitled “The Ideological Opposition to Biological Truth.” In it he did not attack creationism, ridicule Northern Kentucky’s extraordinary “Creation Museum”, or launch a jeremiad against climate deniers. Instead, like Pinker, he excoriated “the ideological left” for ignoring biological data that they supposedly believe conflicts with their leftist political preferences. Coyne offers two examples—the conflict about whether the human race is/is not a “real” biological entity, and conflicts over the evolution of “innate (e.g. genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between human males and females.” To press his point on gender, Coyne starts with a generally accepted fact: in most (but not all!) primate groups males are physically larger than females. He provides evidence that this size difference derives from inter-male competition for females and that larger size provides a competitive advantage. As Coyne sees it, only ideologues or enemies of science (mostly misguided feminists) could possibly disagree with him.

His essay provoked a counter-attacking tweetstorm from Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. Coyne’s account of the evolution of size dimorphism, she writes, is simplistic and biased toward explanations which feature males while ignoring females. [Editor’s note: In case you’re new, this would be far from the first case of evolutionary scientists – or any scholars, really –  ignoring females/women/femininity; there is literally a book by renowned evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy called “The Woman Who Never Evolved.”] Suppose, though, as a result of natural selection, that gestation, which is metabolically demanding, is more successful in smaller bodies. Pregnancy might limit growth. Indeed, it is possible that selection on women for small body size is an important force driving known sex differences in size. “Knowledgeable people,” writes Dunsworth “aren’t objecting to facts”…but to “biased story-telling” of the sort found in Coyne’s post. Dunsworth’s standpoint as a woman and a feminist leads led her to notice women and to think about how they form part of the evolutionary story. And this leads us back to the March for Science’s Diversity Principles. It is not just about being fair to previously underprivileged members of our society. It is that, unless we have scientists bringing diverse standpoints to the table of knowledge formation, the resulting science will be incomplete at best, and altogether wrong at worst.

In a recent op ed in the LA Times, Debra Soh similarly lit into a non-existent group she labeled “gender feminists.” [Editor’s note: When I heard this term, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It’s like the fake news of made-up labels.] The headline and lede give the message. Whoever these gender feminists are (and like Coyne she doesn’t name nor directly cite the scholarly work of the anti-science nemesis), they refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain. (The term “gender feminist” was invented by Christina Hoff Sommers in 1994 in her book Who Stole Feminism, which attacks “feminists who believe that “our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system’ in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive”, as “gender feminism” [taken from Wikipedia].

This seemed to me to be such an outrageous accusation that I consulted a group of evolutionary psychologists who are inclined to validate Soh’s claims to see if they could name these anti-evolution feminist scientists. The best a listserv of over 100 active respondents could do in an extended interchange was identify one feminist psychologist who, in some of her writing, writes some sentences that with malice could be interpreted as supporting Soh’s account. [Editor’s note: Some scientists hate when you ask for evidence for their anti-feminist claims, because: irony.]

Such attacks present us with a conundrum. One side of an intra-science debate has charged the other with refusing to accept facts and data and thus with being anti-science and political. When launched at someone whose life’s work has been dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge and love of rational thought, these are truly fighting words. But even while squabbling with each other, both sides are horrified at creationism, anti-vaxers, climate deniers, and tobacco, oil and gas companies which claim (using paid scientists!) that their products and activities are harmless. How do we identify and counter the real science deniers while at the same time accepting that political differences also and often legitimately shape the conclusions of scientists who are passionately committed to producing reliable results using the tools of objective investigation?

One reason this is such a complex task is that science is porous. It is not always easy to tell when we have crossed some line between legitimate scientific critique and science denial. Obviously, as compellingly laid out in Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), the economic interests of large actors such as tobacco and pharmacy influence knowledge production as they seek to control public policies that might curtail the sale of their products. Sometimes, too, a special interest lobby successfully enforces ignorance about a topic. When this happens, it is not that results are doctored but that we refuse to obtain data needed to make sound policy. Science critic Robert Proctor coined the term “agnotology” to denote the study of culturally-induced ignorance. [Editor’s note: In the feminist science studies literature, this same approach is largely called “epistemologies of ignorance” and you could check out our post on it here.] Indeed, we are in a moment of agnosis so serious that scholars have set up guerrilla teams to save data that are rapidly being purged from US government science websites.

But even while science is molded from without, the attitudes and cultural perspectives of individual researchers also shape scientific inquiry. The social standpoint that you enter the lab with frames what questions you pose, how you pose them, the level of evidence you require before accepting a result, and how you interpret your findings. This is why, in order to have productive debates about many types of research, scientists themselves must learn how to acknowledge their differing standpoints.

Starting in the late 1970s and thinking and writing furiously especially in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist science studies scholars grappled mightily with the concept of scientific objectivity. If science was completely objective, the diversity of the scientific workforce shouldn’t matter. But (all male, all white) communities of scientists always found that women or people of color were biologically inferior while women and scientists of color refuted such claims. [Editor’s note: if I could do that fancy typed out ironic shrug emoticon sort of thing, I would! But it looks hard.] In an infamous example I cite in Myths of Gender (Basic Books: 1985), Darwin and others described as fact that women were more biologically variable and hence more unreliable and less suited for the public sphere than men. But in the early 20th Century, the (still) all white male science cabinet found that men were biologically more variable, and declared variability a virtue that, while it produced more men of inferior ability, it also meant that the extreme high-end geniuses were going to be men, not women. Many examples of this sort addressing women, people of color and the intertwining of race/sex theory can be found in older books such as Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard: 1991) and newer ones such as Melissa Stein’s Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity 1830-1934 (University of Minnesota Press: 2015).

Biologists Ruth Bleier (Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women, 1984), Ethel Tobach (Challenging racism & sexism: Alternatives to genetic explanations, Genes & Gender VII. The Feminist Press: 1994), and Ruth Hubbard (The Politics of Women’s Biology, 1990) led the way with critiques of biological theories about women. They opened intellectual doors that the philosophers, especially Sandra Harding (The Science Question in Feminism, 1984), Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1990), and Elizabeth Potter (Gender and Boyle’s Law of Gases, 2001) stepped through. By the time (1988) that Donna Haraway wrote her still widely-read essay Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” a review engaging with Sandra Harding’s 1984 book, science studies scholars (see also Daston and Galison’s Objectivity: 2007) were heatedly debating the meaning of objectivity and attacking the idea that science dis-covers objective facts that lie passively awaiting revelation. Exploding the idea of objectivity gave way, in turn, to debates about strong and weak objectivity, standpoint, and situated knowledge.

It is the idea that objectivity is always partial, shaped by the collective standpoints of theorizing and investigating scientists, which feminist evolutionary biologists such as Dunsworth and primatologists such as Linda Fedigan (Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, University of Chicago Press: 1992) bring to debates about human evolution. At the heart of Coyne’s, Pinker’s, and Soh’s attacks on feminist resistance to their understandings of evolution and sex differences in the brain, and the resistance to seeing a March platform for inclusion and diversity as essential to the future of good science, is that they cling to an out-dated vision of the scientific process itself. Thus—figuratively speaking—Soh does not blush when she exhorts feminists and transgender activists to stand down and simply let science speak for itself. [Editor’s note: I’m curious how this would even work and I would like some answers! Because sometimes I yell at my data and IT DOES NOT EVEN RESPOND.] Nor does she acknowledge the many years of scholarship from Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton: 1986), to Bruno Latour’s ground-breaking books all of which show that scientific facts emerge through a process of negotiation, theory and experiment and that their shape reflects the specific cultures and historical periods of their production. [Editor’s note: This is asking scientists critiquing feminist science studies to actually read feminist science studies or, put another way, collect evidence. How. Dare. You.]

Where, then, does this leave us? Even as scientists argue with each other about the nature of the enterprise which, quite apparently they deeply love—each in their own way–larger forces threaten empirical knowledge projects and decision making based on the best existing data and analysis. As I write on March 16, 2017, news is spreading about Donald Trump’s budget proposal. Agencies that fund scientific research—the NIH, NSF, EPA, NOAA, DOE, and more do not fare well. Proposed cuts would further the agnotology agenda by defunding research on climate change, rising sea levels, and the effects of pollution while interfering with beloved and productive basic research programs. On the inside, progressive scientists can legitimately struggle with their more cautious or conservative colleagues to push science towards the service of social justice, but at the same time progressive and conservative scientists need to unite to protect the enterprise as a whole.

Figuring out how to have substantive debates that engage different standpoints within the big science tent and without denouncing opponents as anti-science is not easy. Recently historian Alice Dreger tweeted “when the science march happens I plan to be with my fellow historians and sociologists of science in the ‘yes, but’ crowd.”: To which historian Ben Gross responded: “What do we want? Ans: Acceptance that science is a complex social process! When do we want it? Ans: After a well-researched historical discussion.” It is a tricky dance.

The March for Science is important. It demonstrates our numbers as well as our concern for the nation’s future. It provides a counter-message to the idea that scientists are haughty elites who do not care about the common welfare, and it creates a narrative, long forgotten, I am afraid, that science is essential to democracy and that part of our job description as scientists is education and explanation. Pinker is wrong. The political messages of the March for Science will strengthen our hand and create space for us to have our internal spats. And although it would be nice to disagree without calling each other mean names, perhaps that is too much to expect from #ActualLivingScientists.

Women, Science and the Stage

Guest Post by Molly Freeman, Artistic Director of Smoking Apples Theater Company.

Making theatre from scratch relies on unflinching determination, total belief in what you’re doing, and a good deal of perspiration. But before the lights, the sound, the characters, the plot, the script, the movement, the set, the costumes, the props, the stage itself – you need inspiration. A little nugget of a story, found probably by chance, which follows you around all day, tugging at your arm. A tantalising thread just waiting to be pulled.

Lise Meitner was just that. “The greatest scientist you’ve never heard of” and the inspiration behind the latest show from my theatre company, Smoking Apples. Born in 1878 in Austria, Meitner was a naturally curious, highly intelligent child, keeping records of her research on reflected light under her pillow at night. (Editor’s note: The only thing I kept under my pillow was sometimes my hand, which would then fall asleep; not that it’s a competition). Throughout her education she continued to smash through the gender barriers raised against her, proving her worth as a scientist and in 1926, she became Germany’s first female physics professor. The rise of the Nazis forced her to flee Germany to Sweden, where she received a letter from long term scientific collaborator, Otto Hahn, explaining that he had achieved the seemingly impossible – to split apart a uranium nuclei with a single neutron. Meitner pushed this discovery further, concluding that the loss of mass that occurred from this process was due to the creation of energy, something imperceptible to everyone except Meitner. Nuclear Fission was born, the basis of the devastating nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and nuclear energy today. Meitner was a key part of the team behind one of the most provoking and impactful scientific discoveries of our time, yet in 1944, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Nuclear Fission went solely to Otto Hahn.

As nuclear fission began to be harnessed as a weapon of war, Meitner distanced herself from the infamous Manhattan Project, declaring the atomic bomb a ‘destroyer of worlds’. Her research led her to develop one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors. Her headstone reads ‘Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity’.

Editor’s note: Basically, I want this in my house.

In classic Smoking Apples theatre company style, we don’t like to make it easy on ourselves and this show may be our biggest challenge yet. How to translate complicated science onto the stage in an educating, entertaining & inventive way that doesn’t patronise or alienate a diverse range of audiences? Unfortunately, in order to do this, we first have to understand it ourselves and, having specialised in drama, it’s fair to say our brains do not naturally bend towards science. Cue lots of head scratching. In the end it comes down to how much the audience really need to know in order to enjoy the show and empathise with the character. We’re still searching for the answer to that and, terrifyingly, will only know if we’ve got it right on opening night.

Two weeks into rehearsals we have a main character – “Kate” an ambitious, brilliant young nuclear researcher in the 1980s. We have a story arc – as “Kate” delves deeper into her research, she is confronted by the climate of ‘nuclear fear’, the moral dilemmas of her potential discoveries, and the sacrifices she will have to make to achieve them. We have a name for the show – “New Clear Vision”. We have a prototype puppet.

For us, one of the most important elements of this show is the chance to explore the challenges faced by women in science, many of which Meitner was a pioneer in overcoming. Our research led us to some sobering reads. Women in the UK make up just 12.8% of the science, technology, engineering and maths jobs. 12.8 percent. In 2014, 78.9% of the students sitting their A-Level Physics Exams were boys. Last year, Nobel laureate and English biochemist Tim Hunt said at the World Conference of Science Journalists “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab… you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” (Editor’s note: I always like how basically this guy is all: my number one criteria for falling in love with someone is that the person is (a) under my direct power, and (b) in my lab, as if the gender dynamics of what he said wasn’t bizarrely/normatively messed up enough.)

Family, work life balance, lack of role models, confidence & mentoring, unconscious bias, harassment. These are just some of the obstacles to career women in science, neatly stacking up and seemingly refusing to budge all the way from school level to post-graduate and beyond. We want to give these statistics and reports a human side allowing the audience to experience these enormous frustrations with “Kate.” In one scene, “Kate” leaves the lab and heads out to a bar but actually, that’s not what the audience sees. Instead, we use a combination of flip chart paper, bendy pipes and convex vases to create a science experiment which results in a liquid being poured into a cocktail glass (complete with glacier cherry and straw). Making use of the best chemical compound there is – the magic of theatre. (Editor’s note: I’m not a chemist but I still give my full approval to this analogy.)

Editor’s note: Science-y!

Tricks and scene changes aside, in order to get the character of “Kate” right, we have been talking to a range of female scientists and working with various organisations who aim to encourage girls into science at school. In fact, it was a very early decision of ours to have an all-female cast for this very reason. Our previous work has always had a male protagonist and this was a completely unconscious decision, one which we only recently acknowledged. This is our chance to combine the challenges faced by women in science with the challenges faced by us in exploring it.

As a woman creating this show, I’ve certainly noticed that my attitude towards developing a female puppet is very different. In rehearsals so far, I’ve found myself questioning, is she too thin, are her legs too long, what shall we do with her hair, does she need hair? These are questions that we have been through with every puppet we’ve made, but this time they have a whole new meaning.

Editor’s note: If those were haystacks, this could totally be the quirky physicist neighbor’s Hallowe’en display

Then comes the big question; how are we going to do all this with no words on stage…with a puppet…on a budget?

Paradoxically, when you constrain yourself creatively, it is often the moment when you come up with the most imaginative theatre – hence why one of our best scenes came from us throwing balloons around to the Eurythmics (Editor’s note: PHOTOS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN). The set currently looks like a huge periodic table and we have been looking at playing scrabble with the elements (and making rude words).

Devising a piece of theatre is a bumpy road and it’s still early days. One thing is for certain however, this show will be a celebration of women’s achievements in science and an opportunity to shine a light on the challenges they face in our modern world.

Lise Meitner once said “in nuclear physics we have experienced so many surprises that one cannot unconditionally say; it is impossible.” This may become something of a mantra for us as we head towards opening night.

For more information on “New Clear Vision” and rehearsal videos head to www.smokingapplestheatre.com/show/new-clear- vision-rd/

Want to know more?

-Head to www.smokingapplestheatre.com/show/new-clear- vision-rd.

-Smoking Apples are presenting a work-in-progress performance of “New Clear Vision” on Monday 26th September at 4pm Creation Space, Oxford. For tickets please email mail@smokingapplestheatre.com

Exploring Different Methods and Approaches to Doing Feminist Biomedical Science

As Heather Shattuck-Heidorn explains in her recent post, scientific researchers, particularly in the health sciences, are being required by funding institutions to consider the concepts sex and/or gender in their research. Despite the introduction of these requirements, as Sari van Anders [Editor’s note: Hi! that’s ME!] summarizes in her review of Johnson et al., (2014), there is still inconsistent use of the concepts across disciplines as many researchers continue to use gender as a proxy for sex and sex and/or gender to simply mean including women in research studies.

This led us to search the feminist science literature for some direction. We limited feminist science scholarship to feminist scientists and feminist science studies scholars in the fields of biomedicine and public health. These scholars explicitly indicate that they use feminist approaches to science or use feminist conceptions of gender, sex, race and/or ethnicity in their work. What methods have feminist scientists developed to do biomedical science differently? How do these methods improve scientific knowledge and understanding of the world? Using these questions to guide our work, we sought to synthesize the theoretical and methodological approaches in the feminist biomedical science literature.

In our paper[1], we categorize feminist approaches to biomedical science into three main approaches: strong objectivity, partial perspective, and gendered innovations. By grouping the literature into these categories, we identify and describe different ways of doing feminist biomedical science and the particular aspects of the scientific method that each feminist approach seeks to change and improve.

The strong objectivity framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Sandra Harding and argues that science can be more objective if researchers include diverse perspectives and subjects/ experiences (for a deeper explanation, see Sari’s post Is Subjectivity Biased [Editor’s note: I am glad someone finally noticed how deep I am.]) into their research designs. Feminist empiricist and feminist standpoint approaches offer methodological direction for feminist scientists looking to apply the strong objectivity framework [Editor’s note: after all, it’s hard to take theory into practice, so this is really important]. Feminist empiricists offer a way for scientists to think critically about the theories and concepts they will employ by applying feminist and/or antiracist concepts and theories to critically analyze research in their fields of interest. This allows researchers to identify critical flaws in previous research designs and thereby open up new opportunities for research. Feminist standpoint approaches offer a way for scientists to locate their subjects and account for interacting social factors produced by gendered and racialized environments. The work of feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, The Bare Bones of Sex and The Bare Bones of Race [Editor’s note: I don’t mean to brag, but I totally know Anne Fausto-Sterling AND Sandra Harding so basically I am famous], provides an example of research that falls under the strong objectivity framework. Fausto-Sterling identifies critical discrepancies in how researchers define and measure bone health among and between women and men and suggests using a dynamics systems approach to account for social, geographical, and historical environmental factors that shape sex/gender and racial differences in bone health. In other words, the strong objectivity framework uses feminist concepts and theories to think critically about hypotheses, data collection methods, and interpretations of results, and promotes the design more complex and rigorous research studies

The partial perspectives framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Donna Haraway [Editor’s note: I don’t really know Donna Haraway but we emailed once so, basically, we are BFFs] and encourages feminist scientists to go beyond exposing gender and racial assumptions and “bad science” to examine the partial perspectives of scientific researchers. The partial perspectives framework does not seek to provide a more objective or truer knowledge of the world but rather strives to achieve what Haraway terms “feminist objectivity”. In contrast to strong objectivity, feminist objectivity requires researchers to think reflexively about their research interests and locate their objects of study and in doing so, deconstruct the web of power relations that allows certain sexed, gendered, and raced bodies to be produced and naturalized. Feminist science scholars El-Haj (2007), Gannett (2004), and M’charek (2005, 2013) provide examples of research that falls under the partial perspectives framework. These scholars use examples from population geneticists, DNA forensics and medical practices to trace how “biologi­cal races” [Editor’s note: I put irony quotes around biological races because I think they belong there and also because you can “never” have “enough” irony “quotes”] have been re-constituted in and through these scientific technologies and practices. And so, the partial perspectives framework seeks to deconstruct fields of research even before researchers consider the concepts, theories, and data collection methods they will use to design their research and thereby creates conceptual space for new research possibilities.

Finally, the gendered innovations framework draws on the work of feminist science historian Londa Schiebinger [Editor’s note: I don’t know Londa Schiebinger at all but I have read her work so, um, well, I’ve got nothing] and argues that integrating feminist concepts such as sex and gender into scientific research will advance our understanding and produce more scientific innovations. The methodology of this framework draws largely on the work of feminist scientists working in the fields of public health and biomedicine that have proposed ways to integrate and operationalize the concepts of sex, gender, race and/or ethnicity into the research process. Feminist scientists such as Johnson et al. ( 2009), Kaiser (2012), Krieger (2003), Springer et al. (2012), Ritz et al. (2014), Ford and Airhihenbuwa (2010), Gravlee (2009), and Hankivsky (2012) offer practical guidance to researchers seeking to use these concepts. The cross-disciplinary collaboration required to do this work has the potential to foster a shared language and the creation of new ways of operationalizing these concepts (both the social and biomedical sciences; see Hird 2009). Basically, the gendered innovations approach introduces additional steps in the scientific research process so that researchers account for sex, gender, and other intersecting factors related to their research that they might not have captured otherwise.

The various feminist methods we identify in our paper are illustrated in Figure 1. There are areas of research that I’m sure we missed in and outside the field of biomedicine. This paper is by no means an exhaustive review but rather simply seeks to provide a starting point to discuss, refine, and name some of the different feminist methods for doing science differently. [Editor’s note: what an awesome figure!!].

[1] See: Sarah Singh and Ineke Klinge (2015) ‘Mining for Methods: A Review of the Theoretical and Methodological Contributions of Feminist Science Studies’, Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeschlechterStudien (fzg). 12 (2). Pg. 15-31.

Sex, Gender, and the New NIH Policy

In May 2014, the NIH released a new policy mandate requiring equal representation of “sex” in all preclinical research (the research on animals and cellular materials that occurs before clinical trials in humans). I am part of a Harvard-based working group of scientists and science studies scholars that spent the last year reviewing the evidence for this new policy. In a recent opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we argue that while this policy is well intended, if the goal is to address women’s health inequities, it is ultimately unlikely to be effective. Here, at the invitation of Gap Junction Science, I delve into some of our criticisms in a more substantial way for a feminist science studies audience.

 

First, a bit of history. Once upon a time, white males were taken as the normative “species type” and clinical medical trials largely included only white men as participants. As a result, occasionally women using medications would have serious and unanticipated adverse reactions to drugs that had proved safe in men. In the 1980s feminists and/or medical scientists began agitating to improve the representation of women in medical research. This led the NIH to mandate the inclusion of women in clinical trials and to establish the Office of Women’s Health Research in the early 1990s. Yet today, despite adequate representation of women in clinical trials, women continue to disproportionately report adverse drug reactions. These drug reactions are a serious public health concern, as they are responsible for up to 5% of emergency room visits and roughly 100,000 deaths a year in the US.

Why, when women are approximately equally represented in clinical trials, do women continue to report a higher percentage of these reactions? According to proponents of the new NIH mandate, it is largely due to the unequal representation of females in preclinical research; i.e., with animal models and cellular material. Similar to human studies of yore, in some areas of preclinical research, research material is predominately male, and the donor sex of cellular material is often not reported. The new mandate suggests that unequal representation in preclinical materials is lurking behind the health disparity seen in men and women’s adverse drug reactions. NIH policies must serve human health and the explicit policy aim of the new mandate is to improve health outcomes between men and women in the realm of adverse drug reactions.

In our opinion piece, we argue that this policy is not likely to achieve that goal for two primary reasons. First, the non-hypothesis-driven study of sex differences in all preclinical research lacks conceptual clarity about just what sex is. Animal and cellular materials that poorly model human sex run the risk of generating non-replicable or irrelevant findings. For some preclinical materials, such as cell lineages, it is unknown whether XX and XY lineages are valid models of sex differences in humans (see this older post by Stacey Ritz!). For example, a non-negligible percent of XY cell line material has lost the Y chromosome during repeated replication. To what degree do these materials model human male biology? Animal models of sex difference are also challenging – in social animals housing condition produces significant variability in study outcomes, and male animals are often housed at lower densities than females. When modeling human sex differences in the lab, it is not enough to simply include XX and XY tissues or male and female animals and then attribute any differences found to intrinsic sex. Depending on the disease or condition under investigation, researchers analyzing sex-related factors may need to consider whether hormone exposures are relevant, the appropriate age or developmental stage to discern differences, and other variables. A broad mandate requiring study of sex in preclinical materials overlooks these considerations; instead preclinical sex difference models should be hypothesis-driven and validated with respect to the research question at hand.

Second, human sex-linked health disparities may be attributable to sex, gender, and the interaction of the two; focusing solely on sex variables, the mandate presents an impoverished approach to advancing scientific understanding of health disparities between men and women. Highlighting the need for research on gender alongside sex is a critical contribution of feminist science studies scholars. The case of health disparities in adverse reactions is an excellent example of the need for greater intellectual and institutional commitment to sex-gender research, and here I’ll develop this point in greater detail than our short PNAS piece allowed.

We know that gender influences how women and men interact with the medical system. For instance, women are more likely than men to regularly visit a doctor. The reporting of adverse drug reactions is voluntary, and fascinating recent data released by the FDA indicates that for women, nearly half of the adverse drug reactions on record are self-reported to a doctor, while for men, the majority of reactions are reported by a healthcare professional or other third parties. Similar to women’s greater likelihood to regularly visit a doctor, these data could indicate a greater propensity by women to report the experience of an adverse drug reaction.

Polypharmacy is another gender-related variable influencing higher rates of adverse drug reactions in women. Women are more likely than men to be on multiple medications, a major risk factor for adverse drug reactions. It is possible that the majority of serious drug reactions could be avoided simply by adhering to known information regarding contradicting prescriptions. Oral contraceptives are involved in significant numbers of adverse drug reaction cases. Recent research also indicates that SSRIs (a popular type of antidepressant) increase the risk of serious gastrointestinal adverse effects when combined with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin and ibuprofen). Nearly 1 in 4 US women take antidepressants, more than twice the rate of men, and we have long known that doctors are more likely to diagnose women than men with psychological diseases, even given the same clinical presentation.

Furthermore, there is evidence that some of the sex differences in adverse reactions are due to differences in outcomes such as allergic skin reactions. Allergic skin reactions are especially interesting to consider in light of known sex and gender differences. Outside of the context of adverse drug reactions, women generally report more allergic dermatitis reactions than men, a disparity linked to differences in exposure and contact factors, rather than intrinsic sex differences. Research on eczema has also shown that women experience greater distress from active eczema episodes, and that men are more likely to leave their eczema untreated. How these gender-inflicted differences in exposure factors, distress experience, and treatment probability in non-drug associated allergic dermatitis relate to the greater reported incidence of allergic dermal adverse drug reactions in women is unknown.

[Editor’s Note: IS THIS THE BEST MEME THINGIE EVER OR WHAT?!]

This is not to say there are no sex-intrinsic differences in adverse drug reactions, including those potentially related to drug metabolism. On average, there are known differences in enzymatic activity between men and women, though these are not consistent in all studies and may vary by age and ethnicity. We emphatically support basic and preclinical research on these types of sex differences. In our article we specifically argue for more validation research on how animal and cellular materials can model human sex differences. But we believe that the wholesale introduction of sex as a variable into all preclinical research will produce results of dubious meaning and introduce conceptual muddle into understanding sex and gender disparities in health outcomes. In an atmosphere of limited funding, this mandate will capture institutional resources and energy, which come at an opportunity cost to research on other types of questions. On the question of why women have greater rates of adverse drug reactions, we sorely need studies that examine how both sexed and gendered factors interact in the lives of men and women to create this health disparity.

Heather Shattuck-Heidorn is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Evolutionary Biology, with a secondary field in Women and Gender Studies, at Harvard University. Her research focuses on immune function in humans, and sex and gender in science. You can contact her at heather.shattuckfaegre@gmail.com, HEB Department, 11 Divinity Ave. Cambridge, MA 01239.

Babies and STEM

I am just going to lay this out here. If you want to discuss when we start giving children the message that STEM is for boys and not for girls, you can’t get any earlier than the selection of newborn baby clothes. Cars? Robots? Spaceships? Dinosaurs? For boys! Could we get any clearer? (Editor’s note: As a currently preggers person, I have to say that it could be with decorating for the incipient baby since most people find out what sex their baby is before it’s born. So I win? Or we all lose, maybe… Definitely I win for using ‘incipient.’)

The complaint that kids’ clothing is drowned in gender messages is a well-trod progressive parent’s rant. Girl’s shirts pronounce them little cuties and princesses while boy’s shirts are covered with superheroes and sports imagery. If you are looking for something more egalitarian, you will need to look to the more expensive baby clothing lines. However, first, most babies will not be wearing those clothes, and, second, I am just not interested in paying $30 for an onesie that my baby will outgrow in three months.

I strongly suspect that because baby’s bodies are so free of outward expressions of gender, and because we view gender as so primary to a person’s identity, that there is a correspondingly strong drive to make sure a baby’s biological sex is obvious through what the baby wears. (Why, oh why, would I want to pin a tiny functionless bow in my daughter’s wisps of hair for her to grab and pull?) Baby clothes are where you can clearly see society’s free association of what goes with what gender. And in the breakdown of what goes with whom, just about all the imagery that might represent excitement about building, designing, and discovery, e.g. STEM fields, is found in the boy’s aisle. That is, unless, you are thinking about working with wildlife, because giraffes, elephants, ducks, and frogs are firmly in the “gender-neutral” yellow/green aisle.

This is something my wife and I became aware of in a practical way as we anticipated the birth of our daughter Maya. In her first few years of life, our daughter will be dressed in outfits with cherries, robots, owls, giraffes, frogs, cars, cupcakes, and dinosaurs, and in the colors blue, pink, purple, yellow, green, and all the rest of the rainbow. We want all these things and colors to be in her world (Editor’s note: DRESS THE BABIES IN ALL THE THINGS!!!). But, because we are proud geeks, we really love clothes with robots. Slap a goofy little robot on a shirt, and these suckers will buy it. But, almost without exception, clothes with robots are found in the “boy” section and are colored blue. Specifically they are colored in the shades of blue that are coded to be the “boy” shades. As a case in point, when we dress our daughter in a featureless outfit of that shade of blue, we are often asked how old our little “guy” is. We did find one exception to this robot rule of color. A few years ago, we gasped with excitement when we found a roll of fabric at a craft store with pink and purple robots. It was notable for how unusual it was. (Editor’s note: My people are the people who gasp with excitement at diversely-hued robots.)

So if you want to know when precisely we start giving boys and girls the message that the STEM field is masculine, look to the baby clothing aisle. The brilliant thing about baby clothes is that they are never subtle. (That is, unless they are the expensive ones).

(Editor’s note: STOP EVERYTHING! Is a turquoise robot a girl robot or a boy robot? Or just a superfabulous-my-favorite-color robot?)

Here she comes to save the day: PIPETGIRL!

Editor’s Note: Here is a guest post by Stacey Ritz.

We put it in pink so that people with girl-eyes could read it.

Editor’s Note: I am SO GLAD she is pointing to the lab so that my girl brain can find the way there.

ATTENTION WOMEN SCIENTISTS: It’s not our propensity for falling-in-love/being-falled-in-love-with (#distractinglysexy), or all the weeping (I’ve been drinking PBS to rehydrate myself), or our inferior genes, or our lack of original thoughts, or our “belligerent moods”, that have been holding us back in the laboratory…it has been the lack of an appropriately feminine pipettor! And thank goodness those dark days of marginalization are over, because there is now the PIPETGIRL. <<heaves sigh of relief>>

According to Integra Biosciences, features of the PIPETGIRL that distinguish it from the PIPETBOY are:

  • “A significant weight reduction…”, which is something we all want, AMIRITE LAYDEEZ, I mean I have to fit into this size 2 lab coat before the lab photo next Friday.
  • “….Lighter, with only 195 grams and an optimized ergonomic balance”, because our dainty lady-hands can’t handle the bulky heft of the PIPETBOY acu2, which weighs in at a hefty 195 grams….oh hey wait, that’s the same. They must mean the PIPETBOY pro then, the one that weighs 190 grams. Um, what? SO WHAT IS IT LIGHTER THAN? LIGHTER THAN WHAT? THIS IS SOME BULLSHIT I TELL YOU, my hands are going to get all cramped.
  • “Faster, the new Turbo Mode provides the unit with 20% extra pipetting speed.” That way we can save 10 minutes aliquoting the media and get home in time to make dinner before hubby and the kids start whining.
  • “Longer operating time due to the latest lithium-ion battery technology.” Just like women live longer than men, so the PIPETGIRL outlasts the PIPETBOY.

PLUS BONUS PINKWASHING, Y’ALL! The nice lady scientist wearing a pink sweater under her lab coat, making a heart shape with her hands, has a caption that says “Let’s fight breast cancer together!”, and says “A $15 donation per PIPETGIRL goes to breast cancer research institutes.” To which I say HEY, what about ME and my non-breast cancer research, can you just give me a $15 discount on a PIPETBOY and make a donation to my lab instead?

Integra isn’t the only one selling the PIPETGIRL, you can also get it from other suppliers, and I plan to order mine from Vitaris, to reward them for their MOST AMAZING GRAPHIC of woman’s head making a kissy-face emerging horizontally from the side of a clipboard and her gloved hand clasping a purple pipettor (which is not actually the PIPETGIRL, which is pink, which is puzzling because why is the advertisement is for the PIPETGIRL, I AM SO CONFUSED) coming from above the clipboard.

The clipboard itself reads “ENDLICH ZIEHT DIE EMANZIPATION INS LABOUR EIN!”, which, if my memory of Grade 10 German is correct*, means “end draws the emancipation in the labour one!” But then underneath the picture it says “Emancipation has finally reached the lab – with full-on girl power!”, which is probably a better translation (though again my recollection of Grade 10 German suggests that “girl power” should be “Mädchen Macht” and I don’t see that on the clipboard anywhere). Which means that I guess we should be thanking PIPETGIRL for finally helping us reach gender equity in science! Who knew that a lighter** pink pipettor was all that we needed, eh?

*which it most certainly is not

**DISCLAIMER: NOT ACTUALLY LIGHTER

The particle is the boy and the anti-particle the girl? Ridding physics analogies of heteronormativity

Guest post by Jeremy Bailin, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy,  University of Alabama!

Let’s talk about matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe.

Okay, so that’s not normally what you’d expect in a GJS blog. There’s no relation between feminism or sexuality and particles interacting with anti-particles shortly after the Big Bang to turn into gamma rays, right?

Right. And that’s kind of the point.

Let me back up a minute. I am an astronomy professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alabama. I most often teach our 150-student intro astronomy class for non-scientists who need to fulfill their natural science breadth requirement. Lots of these students are scared to death of math and science, and so it is really important to build their intuition for important (and sometimes complicated and counterintuitive) astrophysical concepts using analogies to everyday situations where their intuition can point them in the right direction.

I pride myself on coming up with good analogies. In a good analogy, the correct answer in the analogy should be obvious, and the connection between the analogy and the actual physics should be easy to see. The expansion of the Universe is like the scene from Vertigo where the bottom of the tower stretches away from Jimmy Stewart. The “demotion” of Pluto is like an alien visiting a pet store and mistaking the first cat it sees for a strange dog. And, until this semester, matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe was like boys and girls at a dance.

First, the real physics:

In the early universe, when it was extremely hot, there were almost equal numbers of particles and anti-particles. Particles and anti-particles could come together and annihilate, turning into photons (particles of light, in this case gamma rays), and there was enough energy that photons could turn back into particle/anti-particle pairs. But as the universe cooled down, the photons didn’t have enough energy anymore to turn into particle/anti-particle pairs. Meanwhile, particles and anti-particles kept on annihilating with each other as long as they could. It turns out that there were a few more particles than anti-particles, so the extra particles of matter had nothing to annihilate with and are still around today. Those few extra particles of matter are, in fact, the ones we are made of!

Editor’s note: This is basically the best picture ever of anything in the universe. And that is funny because it IS a picture of the universe. I think. OK I NEVER TOOK PHYSICS. (image from Wired.)

The analogy is that there are a bunch of boys and girls at a dance, who each want to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. While the dance is still going on, boy/girl pairs are forming — just like particle/anti-particle pairs coming together to turn into a photon — and coming apart at the end of each song — just like photons turning back into particle/anti-particle pairs. But once the music stops, all of the boys and girls pair up until they run out of potential partners. It turns out that there are more girls than boys in the population, so after all of the couples have gone, there are a few extra girls left.

By the metrics I listed, this is a great analogy. It is intuitively obvious that there will be a few girls leftover at the end of the dance. And the connection between forming couples and forming particle/anti-particle pairs is easy to see. It’s perfect!

It’s also awfully heteronormative.

When I use this analogy, some fraction of the class will be inwardly sighing as a situation where they do not exist is assumed as the norm [note: Thank you to Andrea Leistra for this turn of phrase!]. And during that moment, when I am trying to excite them with the idea that for every 1,000,000,000 anti-matter particles there were 1,000,000,001 matter particles, and *they themselves* are made up of those extra 1-in-a-billion particles, which I think is one of the coolest things in the entire course… they are not paying attention. Even if I wasn’t motivated to change it because I think that avoiding heteronormative analogies is a good goal (which I do), I would be motivated to do it as a teacher. Now, if I concluded that there really isn’t another good analogy, then I would keep it — it’s not offensive. But if I can come up with another good option, then I should!

However, I was stumped. So, of course, I asked Facebook. I got a number of good suggestions, but most had one of two problems:

The “leads and follows” problem: In ballroom dancing, people either learn to dance as the “lead”, who leads the dance moves, or the “follow”, who follows. Traditionally, for mixed-sex dance partners, males are the leads and females are the follows, but the reverse is perfectly possible, and for same-sex dance partners there is obviously no particular mapping between the sex and the category. This preserves the connection between the physics and the analogy perfectly — there are still two distinct types of dance partners, but there is no longer any connection to sex. However, it fails the intuitive criterion because it is too esoteric; there are likely a large number of students who don’t have enough experience with ballroom dancing to be familiar with the terminology (editor’s note: and this is the real tragedy of our educational system). If the analogous situation is not intuitively obvious, it’s no good.

The “extra sock” problem: Anyone who has ever done laundry in their life has been confounded by the fact that, when you take your laundry out of the dryer and fold it, and put all of your socks into pairs, there is always one leftover. This is definitely intuitive, but fails the other criterion — it is much less analogous to the physics because there is only one type of sock (i.e. left and right socks aren’t different).

In the end, there were two analogies that were left standing. One is a zipper: the Universe began as a very, very long zipper, and as it cooled it got zipped up, with every left zipper tooth joining with a right zipper tooth. However, it turns out that the zipper was longer on one side, so after it has been zipped as far as it could go, there was still a little left on one side. The other good analogy is musical chairs: while the music is playing, people (particles) are in front of first one chair (anti-particle), then another, and so on. But once the music stops, and all of the people sit on any chair they can find that’s free, there are some people left over. I think these are both just as good as the original analogy and are not in the slightest heteronormative!

So, is there a relation between sexuality and matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe? There shouldn’t be. And now, in my class, there isn’t.

[Thanks to everyone who commented on the facebook thread that spawned this post.]

Curious Case of Period Panties: Is the Stereotype of Premenstrual Aggression Empowering or Invalidating of Female Emotion?

Guest post by Tory Eisenlohr-Moul, Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s Reproductive Mood Disorders, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Both physical and psychological experiences of the menstrual cycle vary widely, and no one woman has the right to define or narrate the experiences of others. As we share our own menstrual narratives, we must be careful not to contribute to misogynistic, invalidating views meant to provide an excuse for dismissing women’s emotional experiences when they aren’t convenient.

Every once in a while, a product comes along that provides a context for a reflection on our culture. Today I write about “Period Panties” as one such context. Recently my partner sent me this link to a site for Period Panties– check them out. On a functional level, Period Panties are pretty much what they sound like: panties that you wear during menses. But as a fashion statement, they go much further. Their shape is modeled after men’s tighty-whities, and they are covered with humorously aggressive cartoon imagery that alludes to blood, such as “Shark Week”, “Captain Redbeard”, and “Dawn of the Red.” Inspired stuff–I laughed out loud.

Women have been shamed around menstruation in myriad ways for generations, from banishment to the “red tent” during menses, to being subject to the question, “Is this your time of the month?” after expressing a strong emotion. Recent iterations of these misogynistic attitudes include iPhone apps intended for (ostensibly male) partners of cycling women who wish to be alerted when their partners are nearing “danger weeks”. These apps exemplify the spirit of menstrual shaming: women are disgusting/worthless when they are menstruating, and their expressions of emotion are not to be trusted perimenstrually (i.e., prior to or during menses).

So, given this historical and cultural context of menstrual shaming, there’s a lot to like about Period Panties. In their creators and purchasers, we have women who, instead of presumably cowering in the shameful red tent of their ratty old granny panties, are choosing to turn this week of bleeding into a celebration of female power. Even the shape, co-opted from male fashion, might be intended to put a powerful spin on menstrual bleeding.

As the creators put it, these panties “high-five” you for menstruating. It sounds like a feminist party in my pants. What’s not to like? (editor’s note: I put this in big quotes because obviously.)

(editor’s note: This is a period. I was going to draw panties too, but then I got lazy.)

Is There Evidence for Premenstrual Aggression in the General Population?

As a scientist studying female aggression across the menstrual cycle, I can tell you that perimenstrual aggression, even defined very liberally, seems to be a pretty rare phenomenon.  In fact, evidence for an across-the-board premenstrual syndrome in the general population is pretty nonexistent. A recent review of prospective studies (i.e., studies following women across the cycle) of mood across the menstrual cycle was unable to document a consistent pattern of effects for any emotion, including irritability or anger (Romans, Rose, Einstein, Petrovic, & Stewart, 2012). More specific work examining women’s mood and behavioral responses to the ovarian hormones, estrogen and progesterone, which fluctuate across the menstrual cycle, suggest extreme variability in mood and behavioral responsiveness to hormones (Schmidt, Nieman, Danaceau, Adams, & Rubinow, 1998), with the majority of women showing no significant effects (e.g., Schwartz, Romans, Meiyappan, De Souza, & Einstein, 2012). While there are some women–those with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)–who do show reliable, prospectively-confirmed premenstrual increases in negative moods or interpersonal problems, this is quite a rare phenomenon, affecting only about 5% of women.

Unfortunately, women are notoriously bad at diagnosing premenstrual symptoms in themselves (editor’s note: not just bad, but notoriously bad! that takes skill), a fact highlighted by the recruitment process in our lab. For some of our studies, we recruit using posters that invite women with “PMS” to enter a research study. They then participate in a diagnostic study, completing daily measures of mood symptoms and interpersonal problems for three months. Among this group of women who personally identify as having PMS, only about ⅓ actually show a link between the cycle and their symptoms. Furthermore, many of those women who show such a link do not have interpersonal symptoms (e.g., anger, aggression, conflict), exhibiting only internalizing symptoms such as depression or anxiety.

This suggests that, in our sample of respondents, at least ⅔ of the women who think they have premenstrual psychological disturbances are experiencing something other than PMS/PMDD. One possibility is that these women are falling prey to a confirmation bias phenomenon in which they misattribute emotions to premenstrual processes. This is even more troubling when one considers the negative mental health consequences of such self-invalidation (e.g., “There’s nothing really wrong, I’m just being crazy because it’s my time of the month!”). This kind of invalidation of one’s feelings can lead to a plethora of psychological problems in its own right, and is a key process in broader emotional problems (Robertson, Kimbrel, & Nelson-Gray, 2013). For many women, these attitudes and misattributions may be the result of chronic exposure to societal messages that invalidate female emotional experiences and expressions by invoking the menstrual cycle.

Despite disconfirming evidence, cultural perpetuation of the idea of a normative premenstrual syndrome characterized by irritability and aggressiveness has become so widespread that most people accept it without question. It’s become a popular trope in TV series. Many men, perhaps out of fear of being inappropriate or offensive by asking, make it through most of their lives knowing nothing about the female reproductive cycle except what they see on TV, which is a horrifying notion if you’re paying attention. Many women attribute premenstrual irritability or anger immediately to their cycle rather than examining whether their emotion makes sense in the context of their situation.

I learned quickly that many people are strongly attached to PMS as an explanation for their own and their partners’ behavior. Generally when I (gently) question someone’s assertion that PMS has played a big role in their relationships or lives, I am drowned in a flood of anecdotes supporting their experiences of PMS. And I’m always careful to respond by agreeing that their anecdotes may in fact be manifestations of true PMS/PMDD. But actually, the odds are pretty low.

Celebrating a Diversity of Menstrual Narratives

As women, we have the right to narrate our own menstrual experiences, and to make those narratives public. I’ll go further–I think it’s important that we do so as a way to undermine social stigma and shame around the cycle. However, both physical and psychological experiences of menstruation vary widely, and no one woman has the right to define or narrate the experiences of others. Unfortunately, well-intentioned women often make this leap of overgeneralization in ways that contribute to the myth of pervasive premenstrual aggression, and, by extension, the invalidation of emotions in premenstrual women. It’s important to realize that, although Period Panties may be empowering to some women, they may serve as a reminder to another woman that her emotions are invalid and overblown during the premenstrual phase–even if they aren’t. In sum: claim what makes you feel powerful, but be careful not to assume it will empower someone else.

As a new generation of girls buy their first feminine hygiene products, let’s remember that they are listening to our narratives as they build their own menstrual perceptions.  Let’s be thoughtful about making PMS jokes around them. Let’s be aware of how the men in their lives talk about the cycle. And where we have the chance, let’s practice affirmative action with regard to validating and legitimizing perimenstrual emotions. Let’s take extra steps to search for valid reasons for whatever emotion has arisen, both in ourselves and in other women. If you suspect that your hormones are playing a role, maybe they are– but don’t neglect to check in with your emotions as important sources of information anyway.

In closing: I have a great sense of humor, and period panties are hilarious. More importantly, it’s great if they have the power to reverse menstrual shame and be empowering for many women. On the other hand, I encourage sensitivity in the framing of these menstrual narratives. Through curiosity and open conversation, let’s celebrate a diversity of menstrual experiences.

CITED:

Romans, S., Clarkson, R., Einstein, G., Petrovic, M., & Stewart, D. (2012). Mood and the Menstrual Cycle: A Review of Prospective Data Studies. Gender Medicine, 9(5), 361-384.

Schmidt, P. J., Nieman, L. K., Danaceau, M. A., Adams, L. F., & Rubinow, D. R. (1998). Differential behavioral effects of gonadal steroids in women with and in those without premenstrual syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine,338(4), 209-216.

Schwartz, D. H., Romans, S. E., Meiyappan, S., De Souza, M. J., & Einstein, G. (2012). The role of ovarian steroid hormones in mood. Hormones and behavior,62(4), 448-454.

Men sent to Mars and women sent to Venus: A thought experiment in honor of the NIH’s upcoming policies on incorporating sex in basic research

Guest post by Stacey Ritz

Imagine if you will…

Editor’s note: this is my favorite drawing ever.

It’s the year 2075. After a worldwide search for the hardiest human beings, one man and one woman are selected to colonize other planets: Bob (a chemist from Finland) is sent to Mars, and Flo (a rice farmer from Thailand) is sent to Venus.

Editor’s note: These are skeptical clones (see the eyebrow??).

Each of them is placed in a large spacecraft provisioned with a laboratory for human cloning, 6 months’ worth of basic food and water rations along with oxygen, and space to house 5000 people; the World Space Organization will send additional rations for the populations every 6 months, and once the colonies are at maximum capacity, the WSO will conduct scientific tests of a variety of parameters on the colony.

After a lengthy journey, Bob and Flo arrive on their respective planets, set up their laboratories, and begin producing clones of themselves. They are very successful: by 2125 they are at maximum capacity, and the WSO sends scientists to study the populations.

In the first battery of tests, the scientists make the following measurements:

Editor’s note: WHO IS THIS GUY?! I definitely don’t trust his results.

  • Assay serum levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Administer the “Verbal Reasoning” section of the MCAT
  • Determine the ED50 (effective dose in 50% of the population) for the anaesthetic drug propofol
  • Evaluate leg strength by determining the maximum amount of weight the subjects can leg press
  • Measure height

Their findings are as follows:

Editor’s note: bar graphs!!

Excited by these data, the WSO scientists send the following report back to earth:

MAJOR GENDER* DIFFERENCES FOUND IN MOST EARLY MEASURES

Our initial testing of the inhabitants of Mars and Venus revealed stark differences between men and women for a variety of parameters. Men had significantly higher serum LDL cholesterol than women, which may explain the higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease in men. As expected, women had a much stronger aptitude for verbal reasoning than men, which is in line with the body of literature documenting that women have stronger communication skills than men. Women also required a 44% lower dose of propofol to achieve anaesthesia; anaesthesiologists should adjust their dosages of propofol accordingly for male and female patients. Just like on Earth, men were taller than women, but surprisingly there were no significant differences in lower body strength.

It is probably instantly obvious to most people that this experiment has a whole whack of problems that invalidate the scientists’ conclusions. Given the way this was set up, it is OBVIOUSLY completely unreasonable to ascribe the differences observed in these tests to the sex of the populations. The results could reflect any number of other differences between the two populations that have nothing to do with their sex, for example:

  • Genetically-inherited tendencies:
    • Turns out that Bob has a family history of genetic hypercholesterolemia and tall stature, and his allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that is very efficient in breaking down propofol. On the other hand, Flo comes from a somewhat short family with normal cholesterol, and her allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that has moderate efficiency in metabolizing propofol.
  • Socio-cultural factors:
    • The MCAT verbal reasoning test was administered in English. Flo speaks fluent English and Thai, and so the clones on Venus learned both languages from her and are fluently bilingual. Bob speaks Finnish and broken English, and so the clones on Mars are not very proficient in English.
  • Environmental influences:
    • The specific gravity is 0.376g on Mars, and 0.904g on Venus. Thus, gravity exerted less downward force on the bodies of the inhabitants of Mars, which would tend to allow them to grow taller than those living on Venus.
  • Interactions between genetics and environment:
    • The genetic tendency to tallness of the Bob clones that was magnified by the lower gravity on Mars; although their bodies were larger, the lower gravity on Mars meant that their leg muscles did not have to be as well developed in order to support their (higher) body weight. In contrast, the genetic tendency to shortness of the Flo clones was magnified by the higher gravity; although their bodies were smaller, the higher gravity on Venus meant that their leg muscles had to be relatively more developed to support their (lower) body weight. Thus the net effect of these genetic and environmental influences resulted in similar lower body strength between the groups.
    • Radiation exposure on the space journey to Venus caused a mutation in the CYP2B6 allele in the cell that Flo happened to use in her cloning; the mutation caused a 50% decrease in the activity of the enzyme, so propofol was metabolized more slowly in the clones than in Flo herself.
  • Researcher bias and over-extrapolation:
    • The findings on verbal reasoning fit with the researchers’ pre-existing perception that women are better communicators, so they didn’t consider whether there might be other factors that confounded their findings (ie. language).
    • The researchers are stretching their conclusions pretty far to argue that the difference seen in LDL cholesterol in a genetically homogeneous population under tightly controlled conditions explains a difference in the prevalence of a complex disease in a genetically heterogeneous population with little control over conditions.

You might be saying “well this is OBVIOUSLY a TOTALLY RIDICULOUS scenario and scientists would NEVER make these kinds of mistakes in interpretation.” Well, actually, what I’m suggesting is that people make these kinds of mistakes all the time when interpreting data from cell and animal studies (and also from human studies) that make crude comparisons of male vs. female.

Let me unpack my tortured analogy a bit to make the parallels more explicit:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT CELLS EXPERIMENTAL ANIMALS
The hardiest humans are chosen to colonize another planet. Normal people aren’t chosen because they probably wouldn’t survive. Most cells grown in vitro for laboratory use are ‘cell lines’: cells of the type we’re interested in that have a nearly limitless ability to proliferate. These are usually cancer cells, or cells that have been genetically modified to permit ongoing proliferation. They are NOT normal. Most animals used in experiments are inbred, and have been adapted to laboratory conditions over many generations. They are NOT human and differ from humans in substantial ways.
The colonizers live in an atypical environment with the bare essentials they need to survive. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live. Cells are grown in a plastic flask, fed by culture media. This does not reflect the conditions in which normal cells live. Experimental animals live in cages under highly controlled conditions. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live.
Instead of living in a complex, dynamic human society made up of many different people, the colonizers live in a relatively static environment surrounded by others exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans normally live. Instead of living in a complex, dynamic body made up of many kinds of cells, the cells live in a relatively static culture environment surrounded by other cells exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which cells normally live. Instead of living in natural social groups and engaging in natural behaviour, animals are segregated into groups based on the convenience of the scientist, and live only with other animals of the same sex. This does not reflect the conditions in which mice or humans normally live.
The living conditions of the residents of Mars are different from those of the residents of Venus. The culture medium and conditions used for different cell lines are often different. In mice (the most commonly used experimental mammal), males are usually housed at lower density than females because of the males’ tendency to aggression against one another.
Differences observed between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female cell lines may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female animals may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest.
More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex.

In the 14 May 2014 edition of Nature, the NIH announced that it intends to roll out policies beginning in October 2014 that will “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.” Although I applaud the motivation underlying these changes, I am far from convinced that simply requiring scientists to include male and female cells or animals in their work will be a significant advance in addressing sex and gender in medical research – in fact, I fear that a crude approach of this sort will not only fail to address concerns around equity, but it may in fact exacerbate them and serve to affirm our cultural bias that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

So what do you think? Is my tortured analogy off-base? Will this policy and others like it help or hinder equity in biomedical research?

*Let’s ignore for the moment the ways that scientists tend to conflate sex and gender….that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Feminist Science Studies Organizations

Guest post by Kgupta

Here are some of the feminist science studies organizations that I am aware of:

FEMMSS (The Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics and Science Studies)

http://femmss.org/

FiSTS (Feminists in Science and Technology Studies): FiSTS is a group connected to the Science and Technology Taskforce of the National Women’s Studies Association

https://sites.google.com/site/nwsafists/home

The Fembot Collective (feminism, new media, science and technology)

http://fembotcollective.org/

I would be interested in learning about any other organizations/networks.