‘Men are simple and woman are hormonal.’
This tired, sexist and scientifically unsound notion has stubbornly clung on to us, and scientists, despite their halo of objectivity, are not immune to gender biases either.
From reports of skewed testing methods that favour male animal subjects to discounting women from clinical trials in HIV drugs, women are still getting the short end of the stick in medical research and effectively, treatment.
On 31 May, The Guardian reported that drug trials traditionally carried on male mice has tilted the results in favour of males, both human and mice.
Apparently, the scientific reason for choosing male animals was that female ones had fluctuating hormones. But Rebecca Shansky, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, found that actually male animals showed more fluctuation in their hormone levels.
Similarly, on 28 May, a report in the The New York Times highlighted how HIV testing primarily included male subjects, and so evidence on women’s responses to treatments remained undiscovered.
This despite the fact that nearly half of all HIV cases affect women, which amounts to around 17 million women worldwide.
The real-time ramifications of these biases are huge, with women getting treatments tailored to a male body.
The Male (Brain) as The Norm
Some research adds women into the mix later, while some grossly under-represent the female of the species.
Shansky explained in Science magazine that this inequality is born from “ the scientifically inaccurate notion that male brains are the norm” and other genders are secondary.
The stereotype goes that women’s brains are more hormonal or emotional, despite the fact that both men and women have hormones that impact their health in diverse ways.
This bias seeps into every stage, from the design of the experiment to interpretation and choice of subjects. The results therefore lean on male responses and often leave behind any inquiry on the drug or condition’s specific impact on women.
Similarly for HIV research, AMFAR, an AIDS research organisation, unearthed some uneasy statistics on women’s participation in every stage of clinical testing. Only 11 per cent of women were represented in cure trials, 19 per cent in anti retroviral drug trials and 38 per cent in vaccine studies.
Rowena Johnston, director of AMFAR, told The New York Times that, “If we’re going to find a cure, it’s important that we find a cure that actually works for everybody.”
Who is the Research For?
Under representation at this level brings into discussion who the drug or treatment being tested is aimed at.
Skansky adds that is it well known that male and female bodies express symptoms differently and respond to treatment differently.
For example, PTSD and depression is not only more prevalent in women, but also manifests itself differently in the genders, so the same type of testing on animals (especially just male animals) would not effectively treat women’s symptoms.
Testing specifically on female mice might not only lead to a more precise and effective treatment but also give new insights into female-specific symptoms to tailor the medicines to.
In the HIV tests, the focus has been male, gay men specifically, who were seen as the face of the disease. While the epidemic first primarily affected gay men, the virus has spread and is the number one killer of reproductive aged women. But because of the skewed focus, women with HIV were left behind in clinical testing.
These regressive beliefs have no empirical standing and the continued use of male subjects to test drugs perpetuates a tired, sexist and even medically unsound practice that hurts women.