Mainstreaming Sex and Gender

October 05, 2010

This is the first of several blogs from AAUW Chief of Strategic Advancement Jill Birdwhistell written during her recent trip to Paris on behalf of AAUW to attend a UNESCO conference.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

How are sex and gender reflected in participation in science, technology, engineering and math fields? And how can we create systemic changes that will decrease the global disproportionate underrepresentation of women in these fields? This is the topic of the UNESCO expert group meeting on Gender, Science and Technology, which I am participating in on behalf of AAUW.

They are tasked with developing a set of recommendations to assist the development of guidelines on improving the worldwide status of women through participation in science and technology fields.

Internationally, women are significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, particularly in engineering and technology. Though there are a few conspicuous exceptions, this is generally the pattern throughout the world, and this inequality means a loss of human capital, of research and development opportunity, and of economic contribution—to families and to societies—that is simply unacceptable.

In her keynote presentation on Tuesday, Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University, a world-renowned expert in gender research and the science, stressed the importance of shifting our approach to resolving this imbalance; we’re not trying to reduce the representation of men in STEM fields but to increase participation of women. Schiebinger challenged the two methods that have been the primary strategies in ending this inequality, the “gender neutral” and the “sex/gender difference” approaches.

Schiebinger favors the “equality approach,” which incorporates gender analysis and is starting to show some results. She describes gender analysis as a resource to enhance scientific excellence by mainstreaming sex and gender into STEM policy and research — at the outset of a project. While this sounds totally logical and rational, it is both radical and transformative. Examining the intersections of gender, race, and ethnicity at the point at which projects are being planned and as research is in the design phase, as sensible as this sounds, is only now getting serious attention, with few scientists, engineers, or policy makers familiar with this methodology.

Planning to examine impact on both men and women  from research design to product development helps to ensure that when products reach the market, they are actually safe and functional for both men and women.

Schiebinger underscored the universality of the problem of failing to analyze sex and gender in the development of products with the example of automobile design. This is a personal favorite of mine, since my petite size makes it impossible for me to reach the pedals in any car with more than my toes—more dangerous than many would imagine when I have to “go prone” to depress the clutch at stoplights on hills. The industry term for me is an “out of position” driver, that is, too short for adaptation by the manufacturer when measured against the male model for whom the cars are developed—notwithstanding the fact that the majority of car-buying decisions in the United States today are made by women.

Another persistent design-based flaw that carries with it a danger with which we can all identify is the challenge of seat belts for pregnant women. The three-point seat belts, developed more than 50 years ago and required by law in many countries, present a very high risk for a fetus. We have long known in the United States that 82 percent of fetal deaths come from motor vehicle collisions and that seat belts “out of position” over a pregnant belly greatly increases the force of the crash on the uterus. But how many families have to lose babies before we demand that manufacturers take responsibility for their lethal products?

Sex/gender-based analysis up front could have avoided these risks altogether. It is absolutely the time to demand that sex and gender analysis become a standard for funded research (money talks) and for approval of product design. Market expectations and product liability can drive this change—let’s demand it NOW!

This is part 1  |  part 2 |  part 3 |  part 4 |  part 5

Jill Birdwhistell By:   |   October 05, 2010


  1. Carol Rommel says:

    As an adult STEM scholarship, AAUW winner, and working at a Community College work/study, I would have to say that working towards the general understanding of math and science to better the opportunities to succeed in these fields would be a good start. I work as a remedial math mentor, and I see great challenges for women and girls. It is a wonderful job though when the accomplishments are seen.

  2. Julie Harrison Kleszczewski says:

    Hi Jill:
    What a fascinating article. In my experience as a mother, I noticed that our pre-schoolers attended a “child observation” class. They separated the girls from the boys when they first introduced tools. After a couple of months, the girls had the hang of it. So both the boys and girls were allowed to play with tools together.
    I could be wrong but I think the old practice of medical studies of men solely even though the medications were eventually prescribed for men and women has largely dissappeared.
    Fondest wishes,
    P.S. I wish they would spell your name correctly!

  3. Md. Rabiul Islam says:

    Gender gap is major obstacle for the development of our society. Gender is a word that isolated the human being between two different island, and there are much differences between these two group of human. Gender mainstreaming is a process that trying to join together and make an unanimous and gender gap free world. And because of technological advancement this process is rapidly developing.

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