Rethinking Research Priorities and Outcomes

Researchers and engineers, their senior staff, and other stakeholders make strategic decisions about what work to undertake: They set priorities for future research. This method discusses how to address the potential implications of strategic choices in terms of sex or gender.

A number of factors influence how researchers and engineers think about their research and development priorities, all of which may raise sex- and gender-related issues. These factors include:

  • initiatives of public and private funders and other stakeholders 
  • industrial funding and lobbying 
  • military funding priorities and lobbying 
  • health funding priorities and lobbying 
  • regulatory environment 
  • market research on competitors or particular market segments 
  • the configuration of academic disciplines 
  • professional career tracks and standards for promotion 
  • political and cultural initiatives and movements 
  • a desire to solve social problems 
  • personal experience and interests 
  • beliefs and unconscious assumptions 

Critical questions for analyzing the significance (if any) of sex and gender:

1. How do gender norms influence priorities? What concerns about sex and gender have guided the priorities chosen, and how might they shape or limit the agenda?

  • a. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the research or development in terms of its potential impact on gender equality? For instance, there is an impact on gender equality if assistive technologies serve men more than women. The historic male default in speech synthesis—a bias that was likely unconscious and may have arisen as a result of most professionals in related fields being men—meant that women in need of speaking aid had no female voices to choose from (see Case Study: Making Machines Talk). Research may also leave out gender-diverse people. New research suggests that transgender individuals may be at increased risk for heart disease, but most heart disease studies include only cis women and men (see Case Study: Heart Disease in Diverse Populations).
  • b. What gender norms or gender relations will be challenged or reinforced by a particular line of inquiry or development (Oudshoorn 1994)? For example, when software developers produce “pink” games (such as Barbie Fashion Designer) for girls, they may inadvertently reinforce gendered stereotypes about girls’ and women’s interests. Creating separate “blue” and “pink” games for boys and girls reinforces the gender binary and may not be a productive strategy: as of 2007, the most widely played game among young adults ages 12-17, Guitar Hero, enjoyed nearly an even balance of young women and young men players (see Case Study: Video Games).
  • c. What is overlooked when research or development work is guided by gender assumptions rather than evidence? Are researchers missing opportunities for fruitful innovation? For example, sex determination research historically focused on testis determination and overlooked the genetics of ovarian development (see Case Study: Genetics of Sex Determination). Research on climate change in marine science has largely failed to consider the impact of sex differences on species’ response to environmental perturbation (see Case Study: Marine Science).

2. Who will the research benefit, and who will it leave out? Will the research or technological development have differential effects on women, men, and gender-diverse individuals, or on particular groups of women, men, and gender-diverse people (Harding, 1991; Oudshoorn et al., 2002; IOM, 2010)? For example, assistive technologies have the potential to help the elderly remain independent; designers should take into account that the majority of the elderly and of elder caregivers are women (see Case Study: Exploring Markets for Assistive Technologies for the Elderly). Most drug development research has been performed only in male animals and humans—prioritizing the health of people with female bodies requires adjusting research practices (see Case Study: Prescription Drugs).

  • a. Does research or technology need to differentiate between women, men, and gender diverse people? If so, which specific group (such as urban vs. rural, old vs. young)? What gender norms, relations, or identities are relevant to these groups?
  • b. Are there issues related to biological sex-including gender affirming therapies- that might be relevant (see Case Study: Prescription Drugs)?

3. Do established practices and priorities of the funding agency encourage gendered innovations? A number of granting agencies now require that potential grantees consider whether, and in what sense, sex and gender are relevant to the objectives and methods of the proposed research (see: Policy).

  • a. Does bringing sex and gender analysis to research or technology meet previously unmet needs or open new markets? For example, heart disease has long been considered a male disease and “evidence-based” diagnostic tests, treatments, and clinical standards are based on the most common presentation and pathophysiology in men. Yet heart disease is a major killer of women and gender-diverse individuals as well. Addressing heart disease in these populations has required changes in research priorities and has led to numerous insights (see Case Study: Heart Disease in Diverse Populations).
  • b. What potential opportunities are researchers missing by not considering sex or gender? For example, seatbelts can harm fetuses even in low-impact automobile collisions. Engineers have missed the opportunity to design a seatbelt that provides safety also for pregnant women. Doing so may open a new market in addition to meeting the safety needs of fetuses. Intersectional variables are important here too: for example, current automobile safety testing does not test the safety of cars for people with high BMIs of any gender. (see Case Study: Inclusive Crash Test Dummies). Facial recognition systems have not been designed to recognize faces wearing makeup or transgender faces, which limits the applicability of these technologies (see Case Study: Facial Recognition).
  • c. Are these missed opportunities undermining the sponsoring agency’s mission?

4. Are new data required to make decisions about funding priorities?

  • a. What do sponsors need to know in order to make evidence-based judgments about integrating sex or gender into research and development priorities? What evidence is already available? What data need to be collected? For example, data are needed to understand whether creating video games aimed at young women is an effective strategy for increasing women’s representation in information technology employment (see Case Study: Video Games).


Works Cited

Harding, S. (1991). Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Institute of Medicine (IOM). (2010). Women’s Health Research: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise. Washington, D.C.: United States National Academies Press.

Kafai, Y. Heeter, C., Denner, J., & Sun, J. (2008). Pink, Purple, Casual, or Mainstream Games: Moving Beyond the Gender Divide. In Kafai, Y., Heeter, C., Denner, J., & Sun, J. (Eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, pp. XI-XXV. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press.

Lenhart, A., Kane, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008). Teens’ Gaming Experiences are Diverse and Include Significant Social Interaction and Civic Engagement. Washington, D.C. : Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Oudshoorn, N. Saetnan, A. & Lie, M. (2002). On Gender and Things: Reflections on an Exhibition on Gendered Artifacts. Women’s Studies International Forum, 25 (4), 471-483.

Oudshoorn, N. (1994). Beyond the Natural Body: An Archaeology of Sex Hormones. London: Routledge.





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