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Why diversity helps to produce stronger research

Teams should comprise all gender identities to spark the most innovative endeavours, say researchers.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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Scientists having a Discussion in the Laboratory

Diverse research teams have different perspectives and ideas that can spark innovation.Credit: Getty

Gender diversity in the research environment can drive scientific discovery, but, to fully realize the potential for innovation, inclusivity must be cultivated at multiple levels — from the research team to society, suggests a Perspective in Nature Human Behaviour (M. W. Nielsen et al. Nature Hum. Behav. 2, 726–734; 2018).

Diversity, say the authors, means more than simply putting together diverse research teams. Scientists must also analyse how sex and gender shape the questions they ask and the methods they use to reach scientific insights, the authors note.

For example, as more women entered medical research in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers paid greater attention to women’s health issues such as heart disease, breast cancer and autoimmune diseases (L. Nonnemaker N. Engl. J. Med. 342, 399–405 (2000) and S. V. Rosser Hist. Technol. 18, 355–369 (2002)). Rethinking sex and gender also reshaped osteoporosis research — conventionally considered a disease of postmenopausal women — to include men in screening, diagnosis and treatment. One-third of osteoporosis-related hip fractures occur in men older than 75 (R. A. Adler Bone Res. 2, 14001; 2014).

“The question is no longer what the benefits of diversity are, but how we can best support the potential benefits of diversity,” says one of the Perspective’s authors, Mathias Wullum Nielsen, who studies gender in science at Aarhus University in Denmark. For example, he says, newcomers to a scientific field often ask original research questions. And, although friction can arise from different perspectives and ideas in research teams, those same approaches can spark innovative endeavours.

The authors provide support strategies for scientific teams, organizations, disciplines and societies. “We encourage individual scientists, particularly early-career researchers, to evaluate how gender and sex may be important to the research priorities, questions and design from the start of their projects,” Nielsen says.

When designing research projects, Nielsen says, the key is to integrate the research questions and methods used to assess the degree to which the differences between male, female and other gender identities might shape research outcomes — otherwise known as gender and sex analysis. A co-author of the Perspective is Londa Schiebinger, project director of Gendered Innovations in Science, Health and Medicine, Engineering, and Environment, an endeavour based at Stanford University in California. Its aim is to develop methods of gender and sex analysis, as well as to provide case studies of how the approach can enhance research.

The authors encourage disciplines and research organizations to integrate gender- and sex-analysis methods into core curricula and evaluation practices. At the societal level, the authors advocate for policies that link the diversity of teams and research questions to funding success.

A review by the Stanford-based project found that at least 12 public and private foundations worldwide already have policies for analyses of gender and sex. And almost half of the proposals submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2011 included gender and sex analysis.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07415-9
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