Gendered Innovations inspires new discoveries using gender analysis

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Gendered Innovations inspires new discoveries using gender analysis

Londa Schiebinger develops a research framework to transform science and technology

by Lily Bixler Clausen on Monday, May 6, 2013 - 9:43am

When a Spanish-language newspaper interviewed Londa Schiebinger a few years ago, she ran the story through Google Translate. There was one problem: The Stanford professor was repeatedly referred to as “he.” It turns out, Google Translate defaulted to the masculine pronoun.


“In one fell swoop, Google wiped out 30 years of the women’s movement and government funding to support women,” said Schiebinger, referring to occurrences of “he said” to “she said” balancing from 4:1 in the 1960s to 2:1 in 2000. “And they didn’t mean to. This is unconscious gender bias.”

Schiebinger saw an opportunity. The Stanford History of Science professor held a workshop and invited a Google engineer and Stanford’s top natural language processing expert to talk about the problem and figure out a solution. A fix to their algorithm, it turns out, will correct the troublesome pronoun mismatch and also lead to innovations in overall translation.

The Natural Language Processing case is one of 24 examples of “Gendered Innovations,” a research framework that employs methods of sex and gender analysis to transform research and spurs novel thinking. Schiebinger has found ways to move beyond gender bias and, in fact, drive innovation in some key fields, from video game design, to stem cell research, to the genetics of sex determination, and to osteoporosis research for men.

Launched in 2009, Gendered Innovations was developed through seven international, interdisciplinary workshops over two years with financial backing from the European Commission, the National Science Foundation, and Stanford. The research framework Gendered Innovations has garnered attention and is expanding. International organizations and thought leaders are watching closely, adopting Gendered Innovations to transform research and shape policy. Schiebinger is presenting at the European Parliament in July and in early May she’s giving a talk at TEDx in Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN. Last November she took her message to the National Science Foundation, the National Academies, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Uncovering gender bias

Gender bias, says Schiebinger, is built into society. In turn, research institutions replicate unconscious gender bias in science and technology. For example, Schiebinger noted 10 drugs were recently withdrawn from the U.S. market because of life-threatening health effects. Dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that eight of the withdrawn drugs posed greater health risk to women.

“It is crucially important to identify gender bias in science and technology... How can we harness the creative power of gender analysis to discover new things?”

Schiebinger, who served as Clayman Institute Director from 2004 to 2010, untangled complex connections among gender, institutions, and creativity by outlining three historic approaches. First, is an attempt to “fix the number of women” in science. The second approach is to reduce gender bias in institutions, or “fix the institutions.”  According to current Clayman Institute Director Shelley Correll, when people rely on gut instincts as decision-making shortcuts, they are more prone to errors in judgment and evaluation, which contributes to a gap in opportunities for women. It’s such subtle gender bias that leads teachers to write better recommendation letters for men than for women

Schiebinger’s third approach — the most important for the future of STEM fields — is Gendered Innovations in research, or “fix the knowledge.” “It is crucially important to identify gender bias in science and technology,” Schiebinger said. But analysis cannot stop there. “We now need to turn this on its head—to turn bias into something positive,” she said.

Water infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa

Woman and mapThe first example of turning bias “on its head” takes us to sub-Saharan Africa. Around the world, close to a billion people don’t have reliable access to improved water. In sub-Saharan Africa, water fetching is women’s work. When villages lack water infrastructure, women and girls spend roughly 40 billion hours per year carrying water.

As a result, women have detailed knowledge of soil and water yields. It turns out this knowledge is vital to civil engineering and development projects in determining where to build infrastructure.

The Gendered Innovation here, Schiebinger explained, is that tapping into local women’s knowledge improved the efficiency of water projects. In fact, a study of water initiatives in 13 nations revealed that women’s participation contributes to the success and sustainability of community-managed water services. A secondary outcome of this Gendered Innovation is seen in improving school attendance for girls and boys, a development that helps break the poverty cycle. It’s a win-win situation.

Analyzing sex in stem cells

The second example moves into the realm of medical research. The head of a lab in Norway was running experiments transplanting female bone marrow stem cells into both male and female mice. The males started to die but the researchers couldn’t figure out why.

Then the Norwegian researcher went to the Gendered Innovations website and, per the stem cell example, adjusted his experiment to use same-sex donor:recipient combination. While biological sex is commonly studied as a variable in research with humans, in animal and cell-based research, analyzing sex is less systematic. This scarcity can result in lost opportunities to understand basic biology and refine therapies. As the Norwegian research commented, “ouch….all that distress and expense could have been avoided."

The Norwegian researcher and his team, Schiebinger recounted, learned they needed to look at the sex of the donor. “They’re now going to redesign the study to use both male and female donors,” she said. “It gave them new ideas of what to try next.”

Rethinking public transportation systems

In a third example, government engineers incorporated gender analysis in their transportation research to get a better outcome. Urban planners collect data to understand how people use public transportation, but the systems are typically designed around commuters’ needs.  What’s missing? These routes don’t reflect travel for care work—caring for children, the elderly, and households. People who travel solely to work typically travel directly between home to work while those men and women workers who are also care givers travel in “chained-trip” paths. For example, a caregiver may stop by the grocery story, the dry cleaners, and daycare before going home. 

Public Transportation Trips by Purpose ChartThe Gendered Innovations project offered engineers a way to rethink data collection and analysis. Incorporating “caring work” into user surveys revealed to engineers that this type of work accounts for the second largest category of transportation trips. Understanding gender differences in public transportation, it turns out, will be important to mitigating climate change by planning efficient housing and neighborhoods.

Next steps for Gendered Innovations involve researchers, policy makers, institutional leadership, and industry putting into practice important policies that take into account sex and gender analysis. Likewise, Schiebinger urges that such analysis should be integrated into the editorial processes of peer-reviewed journals and into the curriculum of high schools and universities.

In five years, Schiebinger said she’d be delighted if people were regularly using sex and gender analysis, when it’s relevant in their research. “If I put myself out of business I’ll be delighted,” she joked. “It would mean researchers are harnessing the creative power of gender analysis, and I can retire a happy woman.”


Londa SchiebingerLonda Schiebinger is the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford University, the Director of the Gendered Innovations project, and a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow. She was the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute from 2004 to 2010.  Schiebinger is author of numerous publications and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.


 Lily B. Clausen

Lily B. Clausen joined the Clayman Institute more than two years ago and is now editor of Gender News. Lily's roots are in the feminist press, and she has degrees from Scripps College and Stanford University.