It’s a man’s world – but not for long IStockphoto

It’s a man’s world – but not for long

In Society
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 19 February 2014 15:03

The fact that men and women differ in many ways should be taken into account in scientific research more often, according to the European Commission. Therefore, researchers applying for a grant from the new European framework programme Horizon 2020 must indicate how their study design addresses sex and gender differences. The Maastricht researcher Ineke Klinge led the EU project Gendered Innovations, which developed a checklist to help researchers meet this obligation. How do three UM professors view this development?

Hans Nelen, professor of Criminology, Faculty of Law:

“Our Criminology programme mainly attracts women, yet virtually all theoretical models explaining crime relate to men. One theory is that social ties play a role in steering people away from criminality, and because women approach social ties differently, they’ll be dissuaded from taking part in crime. This would be an interesting avenue for research specifically on women, but only a handful of studies have been done. Of course, that’s also because 80% of the crime we’re aware of is committed by men. Moreover, our researchers are commissioned to work on projects by a particular ministry or the European Commission – we have to keep the pot boiling, after all – and then the research question typically revolves more around the problem groups.

I study organised crime; fraud, money laundering, corruption and integrity. Business executives who engage in such activity are also still largely men. As machismo probably plays a role in these types of crime, we could hypothesise that having more women at the top could lead to less corruption, because we’d likely see a different type of organisational culture. Now that I think about it, that would also be an interesting research question. There are indeed a few female professors in my field who regularly address gender issues, so I recognise that it’s also partly to do with your mindset.

As for the EU’s requirement to explicitly consider sex and gender differences, my concern is that you’ll end up with a gratuitous, throwaway line in every application. It’s useful to consider for some research questions, but not necessarily for others.”

Arno Riedl, professor of Public Economics, School of Business and Economics:

“My group is interested in social preferences, which includes male–female differences. One of my PhD students – male, incidentally – is studying why so few women work in executive positions; which factors play a role in this? Women are risk averse, according to previous research, and the hypothesis is that they shy away from competition. Our experiments show that in a typically ‘male’ task, men indeed perform better in a competitive setting than women. We’re now exploring this finding further: why do women perform less well in a competitive setting, and are there environments in which they embrace competition? This research shows that if men and women get to choose, they both prefer a female competitor. It also demonstrates that women enter into competition just as frequently as men. So women are not averse to competition, as previously thought; they simply shun competition with men.

As for the Horizon 2020 requirements, I’m ambivalent. Of course male–female differences shouldn’t be overlooked, but I find it a bit strange to have to explain why you’re not researching something. Wouldn’t you then also have to indicate why you’re not looking at children, or minorities, or seniors? As an economist I find that inefficient. In my view a grant application should focus on demonstrating the importance of the research for scholarship and society, and sometimes addressing gender differences is relevant and sometimes not. I’d be afraid that a token section on this would only create more work. If the European Commission wants more research on gender differences, it should provide funding for that research.”

Annemie Schols, professor of Nutrition and Metabolism in Chronic Diseases, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences:

“I often come across research that doesn’t do justice to male–female differences. For example, the composition of weight plays an important role in my field: we know that the degree to which fat, muscle and bone are affected by disease and the consequences of this for everyday functioning differ between men and women. Yet in order to reduce variability, studies typically only include men. So the implications of such research only apply to men, but the titles of the resulting articles rarely indicate this.

With a multidisciplinary team funded by ZonMW, the Dutch agency for health and healthcare research, we’re investigating strength training for obese adolescents. The question is whether this is more suitable for them than conventional exercise programmes, which tend to focus on endurance training. The first step is to study how girls actually perceive strength training. It may be that this is completely the wrong type of intervention for girls, or that it will need to be modified for them.

I think the research question for every study should consider the role of gender. It’s fine if you can demonstrate that it’s not relevant for your research, but you should at least consider it. In addition, research proposals should identify the social relevance or the patient perspective in the research. Sometimes these just become standard sections, so that’s something assessors should be alert to. But there’s always the danger that we lose ourselves in our own research; that we have a blind spot for why we’re doing it at all. So it’s no bad thing to be reminded again through these sorts of requirements.”

Ineke Klinge:

“I’m pleasantly surprised by these responses: the three professors are clearly engaged with this topic, and as Hans Nelen’s response indicates, even just stopping to think about it yields interesting research questions. That’s one of the goals of Gendered Innovations: to help researchers develop a sort of radar for sex and gender differences. But indeed, only where this is relevant. Arno Riedl is right to emphasise that research proposals have to explain the relevance of the study for society. The problem is that, to date, the research results found for men are extrapolated to entire populations. The basic premise of Gendered Innovations, and of the European Commission’s standpoint, is that you have to be aware of the relevant differences. And as Annemie Schols rightly points out, the EC should ensure that assessors are trained to recognise standard phrasing that is essentially meaningless.”

Dr Ineke Klinge works in the Department of Health, Ethics and Society (HES) at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML).

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