June 16th, 2010


on sexism

Today, while revising, I realised that one of the majorly influential scientific papers I've studied (and wrote an essay on last term) was written by a woman.  I'm ashamed to say that my first feeling was one of surprise, because I've come to take it for granted that all the important papers and books in the field tend to be written by men.  My lecturers and tutors are mostly men (they're also all white, fwiw).  I'm rather uncomfortable that I've just been accepting this as the natural order of things.

Also, I was reading some articles in Science this afternoon (it's one of the really influencial journals, in case you didn't know that), and this issue contains several stories about how clinical trials and the like are biased towards using men as the standard test subject -- with ratios in the terms of five or six to one.  It isn't even confined to humans -- the same bias holds true in research on lab animals.  Males are much more likely to be used unless females are specifically required.  This leads to treatment for women being far less evidence-based than treatment for men. 

Pertinant quotes (full text here, but it's subscription-only): "Differences in the physiology of males and females, and in their response to disease, have been recognized for decades in many species — not least Homo sapiens. The literature on these differences now encompasses everything from variations in gene expression between male and female mice, to a higher susceptibility to adverse drug reactions in women compared with men. Moreover, hormones made by the ovaries are known to influence symptoms in human diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy.

Funding agencies and researchers alike should also start thinking seriously about how to deal with the most fundamental sex difference: pregnancy. Pregnant women get ill, and sick women get pregnant. They need therapies, too, even though they are carrying a highly vulnerable fetus and their bodies are undergoing massive changes in hormonal balance, immune function and much else besides. Entering pregnant women in clinical trials is problematic in the extreme, for a host of ethical reasons. But ignoring the problem is not an answer either — the result is that physicians will prescribe drugs whose effects during pregnancy are poorly known."

Several of us at college had a picnic on the lawn this evening, at which I brought up this topic, since it was fresh in my mind.  We were mostly girls.  One of my friends (female) immediately tried to shoot me down, saying that she hated feminists, because "they're just a load of women whinging about imaginary problems".  According to her, we're ~allowed~ to complain in private (mostly in the silence of our heads), but she doesn't see why it's in any way important to actually voice concerns in public, where those we're complaining about can hear us.  All we're doing, as women, is making ourselves look easily offended and whingy.  And everyone knows that women complain too much already!

This girl?  She's a PPEist (politcal).  Actually pretty damn likely to end up in parliment, but doesn't think that the underrepresentation of women is any sort of problem.  To be fair, two of the other girls who backed me up were also PPEists, but still.  The guys all stayed quiet, apart from the guy who's FTM who also agreed with me.

Along similar lines, who else has heard about the fail going on at CBS?  They have a show, Criminal Minds, which has excellent plotlines and an excellent cast, including some of the strongest female characters on television.  The male:female ratio is 4:3.  Now it's just been announced that, to "save costs", one of the women is being outright dumped from the show and another is having her screentime dramatically reduced, so that she will only appear in a fraction of episodes.  Non of the male cast members are being affected by the "cost issues".  Coincidentally, or not, the single surviving woman is the one who is by far the most girly of the three.  The fail here is what I'd call pretty dramatic.