A Push For Gender Equality In The Lab

by Jonah Shepp

No, not the scientists: the animals. Francie Diep explains:

The U.S. National Institutes of Health—one of the biggest funders of biomedical research in the U.S. and the world—will now require the studies it funds to have equal numbers of male and female lab animals. It’s even requiring gender balance in studies done in cells in petri dishes. Yep, that means female and male lab rats will now have equal opportunity to die for science.

All kidding aside, this is actually an important moment for the way medicines are developed in America. All new drugs and treatments are first tested in cells in a petri dish, as well as lab mice, rats, monkeys and other animals. If those studies go well, then they’re tested in people. Late-stage human studies of medicines in the U.S. are now required to recruit at least some women. (This wasn’t always true and, on the whole, it’s still not 50-50.) Gender parity in clinical trials is important because men and women are known to react differently to some medications. Just check out this example, or this one, or all these ones.

Marcotte adds:

That you shouldn’t exclude half a species in your testing seems obvious, but there are understandable, if not really defensible, reasons that scientists have typically stuck to male-only studies.

Roni Caryn Rabin at the New York Times explains: “Researchers avoided using female animals for fear that their reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations would confound the results of delicately calibrated experiments.” But while this tradition makes it easier to come up with clean results, the long-term effect is that drugs are being released that women are going to take without researchers always knowing exactly how those drugs will work on them. (After all, human females have reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations, too.)

Feminists in science have long been advocating for an end to the habit of male-only studies for just this reason. That’s part of why the University of Wisconsin started a feminist biology program to help critique and improve biology by targeting some of the unquestioned gender bias that sadly continues to flourish in the field.