Even the cows are male: Impacts of gender/sex policy on grant apps

What happens when grant institutes ask applicants whether they are considering gender and sex? Joy Johnson, Zena Sharman, Bilkis Vissandjee, and Donna E. Stewart found out. But they’re not just your everyday run-of-the-mill finder-outers: Dr. Johnson is the Scientific Director of the Institute of Gender and Health (IGH, one of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR), Dr. Sharman is its Assistant Director, Dr. Vissandjee is a Professor at the University of Montreal, and Donna E. Stewart is a Professor at the University of Toronto. You can see the article here. Long introduction short: in December 2010, CIHR instituted a requirement that all applicants had to indicate whether their grant accounted for sex or gender. These authors wanted to see what happened. I feel like it wouldn’t be inappropriate to insert those Law and Order doink-doink sounds here, from when they start off their show, in case you were wondering.

These are the questions: definitely not an onerous burden! And, they provided online links to applicants for help about gender and sex.

These are the questions: definitely not an onerous burden! And, they provided online links to applicants for help about gender and sex.

Why did CIHR use these questions? Basically, to solve this problem: that scientists generally study only men/males and aren’t really changing. The authors looked at all successfully funded applications (not just a sample). They couldn’t look at unfunded applications because of CIHR privacy laws, which is too bad because it would be interesting to see whether gender/sex attention differed according to funding status. Anyway, the policy made a difference: the purple line shows that relatively fewer applicants did not incorporate sex and gender over time, and the other lines show that relatively more applicants did incorporate especially sex but also gender over time.


Take-home: Over time, more applicants attended to sex and gender, and fewer applicants didn’t.

Also cool: the authors were able to look at fields: clinical research applicants were the most likely to take sex into account, and population health applicants the most likely to address gender. Biomedical applicants were, um, a bit behind: they were the least likely to take gender or sex into account – with over 80% initially saying no to both and ending up with 60% saying no to both (better, but I don’t need my swooning couch anytime soon).

You might be thinking: what about the applicants themselves? We know that ‘gender’ is often code for ‘women,’ which has the corollary that women are way more likely to think about gender than men are. That held true here: men applicants were less likely to involve sex or gender in their project than women applicants. Perusing the figures, it seems to me that the difference between disciplines is more marked than the difference between women and men applicants, though I didn’t run any stats on this.

Also very interesting: some panels were more likely to have applicants focusing on gender and/or sex. These high achievers included:

  • Aboriginal Peoples’ Health
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology -B (I don’t think this means it’s the B Team, though, just to be clear)
  • Social and Developmental Aspects of Children’s and Youth’s Health
  • Gender, Sex and Health (it would have been really embarrassing if this category wasn’t on this list.)
  • Psychosocial, Sociocultural and Behavioural Determinants of Health (1 and 2, whatever that means)
  • Public, Community and Population Health -1

I think we can all agree that the first thing anyone would notice on this list is the lack of the Oxford comma for a commonwealth country. AM I RIGHT?! The second thing is that this is actually a bit of a mixed bag but also kind of not. If you excluded the thematic outlier (biochemistry and molecular biology) (and don’t forget the “-B”!!!), all the other titles invoke culture somehow. So gender and sex = culture?

Of course, some panels were more likely to focus on sex, and some on gender. Some were also more likely to not focus on gender or sex, with gender especially absent (usually present ZERO times):

  • Biochemistry & Molecular Biology -A (in stark contrast to its sibling panel, B, above, which must make for some really tense family reunions)
  • Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease
  • Cell Physiology
  • Basically any panel that had an “-ology” in it (e.g. Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease, Immunology & Transplantation, Developmental Biology, etc.)
  • Basically any panel that has a new fancy way of not saying “-olog” but kind of really meaning it but saying neuroscience or behavioural sciences instead (e.g., Systems & Clinical Neuroscience, Cardiovascular System, Pharmaceutical Sciences, etc.)

Based on this and some other analyses, the authors note, and I like their language:

These results suggest that the integration of sex and gender is divided upon disciplinary lines, with the behavioural and public health communities having adopted the integration sex/gender and those panels based on cellular processes having apparently resisted voluntary incorporation of these considerations. (bold mine, ALL MINE!)

I, personally, would have done a very loud tsk tsk and given cellular processes a very stern look, but these authors perhaps took a less volatile approach.

The authors did some qualitative analyses on the applicants’ text answers and found that applicants often conflated sex with gender, using “gender” in animal studies and studies of biological differences. The reverse wasn’t true: people didn’t use sex when they meant gender. And, as I wrote above, women = gender, so the authors note that applicants who were studying women OR who were studying women and men saw themselves as studying gender. Ha ha cry cry. Though some applicants talked about using gender and/or sex as a covariate, disconcertingly people would talk about recruiting equal numbers of women and men but:

… the descriptions of the methods did not specify a plan for analyzing these data by sex and/or gender.

Well, that sounds good. Willy nilly is definitely the best part of science, right? Right? What did people say when they did not integrate sex or gender? Get ready:

This is a basic science research project.

Because gender/sex = not science, as everyone knows. They also said:

No human subjects used in this study.

Because, as even our nations’ preschoolers know, animals come in only one flavor: male. Seriously, try to get someone to call any animal (especially a big, strong, scary, or ugly one) ‘she’ and watch their mouth stop working.

Even daycare-aged kids know that all animals are male, including cows.

Even daycare-aged kids know that all animals are male. Even the cows are male.

There were other problematic responses, including that because the issue was “equally important” to men and women, gender/sex didn’t need to be accounted for. That is philosophy of logic right there, in action. Or, if applicants were studying only women or only men, then gender/sex was irrelevant. My undergraduate students sometimes struggle with this, to be fair: we live in a culture where gender = gender difference, and sex = sex difference. So if difference isn’t being studied, then a surprising number of people (including, apparently, PhDs and MDs who are studying gender/sex) will think that gender and sex aren’t being studied. Are you studying pregnancy? Well, as everyone knows, that has nothing to do with sex or gender because only women (and of course some trans men) do pregnancy. Are you studying semen? That has nothing to do with sex or gender, since only men (and of course some trans women) do semen. If you studied pregnancy in women and men, or if you studied semen in men and women, well, there you’d be all over gender/sex fer sher.

There was one excuse-I-mean-justification that was very striking and worrisome:

… lack of evidence – for example, no prior evidence of sex or gender-based differences.

Because science, obviously, only studies what’s already known. I mean, that’s what science does, right?! It’s not like we scientists are about producing new knowledge, asking unasked questions. That’s for amateurs!

Anyway, being snarky here is just like shooting fish in a barrel, which I have never done but sounds intriguing. So, moving on, the authors conclude (among other things):

…funding agencies have a key role to play in enabling this shift [38]. For example, the design and implementation of funding agency-level changes such as extending sex-based inclusion requirements to preclinical animal studies, providing applicants with clear instructions on sex and gender, educating applicants, peer reviewers and agency staff on the importance of sex and gender, and engaging in regular measurement and monitoring of progress [15], [39]. … knowledge gaps suggested by the results of the qualitative analysis presented here – for example, the persistent conflation of sex and gender by health researchers, the assumption that gender applies only to women, and the perception that sex is not relevant to research on animal or cell models.

I think the part of this paper that makes my heart glad is that the authors use science and scholarship to understand what is going on with grant applications. The part that makes my heart less glad is how much – I’m going to say it! – ignorance there is about the most basics around gender and sex even among a progressive nation’s most high-achieving scientists (um, full disclosure: I’m from Canada, but I think all those indices always put Canada pretty high on a progressive scale). But epistemology of ignorance or agnatology – the study of what we don’t know and why we don’t know it – is critical to moving forward and understanding where we are. The part that makes my heart sweat in a bad way is: can we do the work? That part that makes my heart sweat in a good way is: obviously, and this helps us know where to start. (My heart does a lot, sometimes.)

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