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 (Schiebinger et al., 2010)?
    • 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).
    • 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 gender essentialism 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).
    • 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).
  2. Whom will the research benefit, and whom will it leave out? Will the research or technological development have differential effects on women and men, or on particular groups of women and men (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).
    • Does research or technology need to differentiate between women and men? If so, which specific women or men (such as urban vs. rural, old vs. young)? What gender norms, relations, or identities are relevant to these groups?
    • Are there issues related to biological sex that might be relevant?
  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).
    • 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 as well. Addressing heart disease in women has required changes in research priorities and has led to numerous insights (see Case Study: Heart Disease).
    • 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.
    • Are these missed opportunities undermining the sponsoring agency’s mission?
  4. Are new data required to make decisions about funding priorities?
    • 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).

Related Case Studies

Genetics of Sex Determination
HIV Microbicides
Human Thorax Model
Information for Air Travelers
Making Machines Talk
Nanotechnology-Based Screening for HPV
Pregnant Crash Test Dummies

Works Cited

  • Faulkner, W., & Lie, M. (2007). Gender in the Information Society: Strategies of Inclusion. Gender, Technology, and Development, 11 (2), 157-177.
  • 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.
  • Schiebinger, L., & Klinge, I. (Eds.) (2010). Gendered Innovations: Mainstreaming Sex and Gender Analysis into Basic and Applied Research. Brussels: European Commission.