Sex/Gender and the Biosocial Turn

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Scholar & Feminist Online


Feminist scientists have offered clear frameworks and research methods for empirically investigating sex/gender within the biological sciences (Schiebinger 2008; Springer, Stellman, and Jordan-Young 2012; Ritz 2014; Singh and Klinge 2015; Kreiger 2003). Yet many scientists continue to struggle to operationalize gender in research design (Ruiz-Cantero et al. 2007; Jahn et al. 2017). In a review of epidemiological research conducted between 2006 and 2014, Jahn et al. found that researchers frequently discuss sex/gender in the introduction and discussion sections of a publication, but rarely actually incorporate sex/gender theory into study design or statistical analysis.

Recent policies by elite bioscience funders and journals that require documentation of sex differences in preclinical research exemplify and amplify this disconnect. For example, a 2016 National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidance and infographic (figure 1) released in tandem with its new mandate for analyzing sex in basic research included but one example of how gender may influence a biological trait: the simplistic and highly stereotyped scenario of the effects of wearing high heels on knee joints. The NIH’s guidance is a high-profile example of how the influence of gender on biological traits and health outcomes is frequently poorly understood or downplayed among biomedical researchers. Despite the routine inclusion of the concept of gender alongside that of sex in NIH literature, in practice the NIH assumes that biological differences between men and women stem primarily from intrinsic sex differences, and the NIH’s policy mandates only the consideration of sex, not gender, in research.