Rats! Sexism really is everywhere

sexism inselection of lab mice
Credit: La Tarte au Citron

According to research, sexism extends all the way down to the mice and rats used in clinical trials.

It's no secret that there's a diversity and inclusion problem in STEM fields. But apparently, it's worse than anyone thought -- it turns out, according to Wired and commentary from neuroscientist Jeffrey S. Mogil in Nature, that sexism extends all the way down to the rats used in clinical experiments.

It turns out the rodents used in biomedical studies are male. Even though evidence indicates that women process pain differently than men, lab scientists who study ways of treating that pain still use male mice and rats.

The implications are far broader, though. It's a matter of exploring societal issues and challenges based only on the perspectives of one sex, and designing and building solutions to those problems based on the input and outcomes of experiments that only take into account one sex, effectively leaving out roughly half the population.

And that's a problem not just in biotechnology and in developing new medical treatments and pharmaceuticals, but in all areas of STEM development, design and manufacturing. Designing products and solutions with only men in mind can make computer hardware difficult to use for women. It can make everyday safety features -- like the seatbelts in your car -- less safe for women. It means that even office temperatures are set based on optimal conditions for men, but not women (when I worked in an office, I had no less than three 'office cardigans' and, in one particularly arctic environment, a pair of fuzzy slippers under my desk).

The problem becomes exponentially more serious when, for example, voice-activated tech assistants -- like Apple's Siri, Google's Now and others -- don't take into account how to handle sexual assault or physical abuse, something that approximately one in four women in the U.S. and one-third of women worldwide will deal with in their lifetime.

"The underlying design assumption behind many of these errors is that girls and women are not 'normal' human beings in their own right. Rather, they are perceived as defective, sick, more needy, or 'wrong sized,' versions of men and boys. When it comes to healthcare, male-centeredness isn't just annoying -- it results in very real needs being ignored, erased or being classified as 'extra' or unnecessary," writes Soraya Chemaly for Quartz.

Thankfully, the National Institute of Health recognizes the issue, and has implemented a new policy as of January 2016 that mandates grant applicants take sex into account as a biological variable. "This comes from over 10 to 15 years of increasing understanding in the scientific world that males and females react differently to treatments, to medications, and show diseases in different ways," says Janine Clayton, director of the NIH's Office of Research on Women's Health.

And while it seems to have taken an inordinately long amount of time for the issue to get the attention it deserves, it's a good start.

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