As the world celebrates the vast amount of progress that has occurred this International Women’s Day (IWD), it is important to recognize there is still a long way to go. In many parts of the world, in many different arenas, women and girls still don’t exist.
Basic data that can tell us about the lives of women and girls just isn’t there. The problem with this is that women and girls get left out of policy making, and the decisions that affect health, education and the economy entirely. The lack of data means progress cannot be monitored, lack of improvement cannot be tackled, and no one can be held accountable from a community level all the way to multilateral organizations like the UN, who are trying to track progress with the Sustainable Development Goals. How can any of the goals be achieved if there is poor data for half of the population?
In addition to monitoring progress and accountability, how can we go forth and design a world when half of the data is missing? This is a massive problem in science, where results and outcomes of trials and observational studies that inform public policies do not capture the effects on women and girls. For example, simple work regulations like the formula to determine standard office temperature, was developed around the resting metabolic rate of the average man, meaning that offices are five degrees too cold for women. Even the design of cars have been molded around crash-test dummies based on the average male. When a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured.
At a cellular level, men and women are different. They respond to external stimuli differently, will cope with diseases differently, and metabolize drugs differently. Yet fewer than 45% of animal studies for example in mental health use female lab animals. One of the biggest studies in cardiovascular disease (a number one killer in both men and women), the 1995 Physicians Health study, involved 22,071 men and no women. Lack of trial data for women means that we cannot fully understand the effects that interventions have on women. There is a view that as women have fluctuating hormone levels, confounding can occur and greater tests are required to account for these hormone interactions if they are included in trials. However, the answer is not to exclude women entirely just because they make trials difficult and their inclusion doesn’t apply to men. Women exist. And diseases affect both sexes. The science community has to understand this going forward. Yes it may be more expensive to include women in trials, but it has to be done to ensure we place equal value to the lives of both men and women.
An institute that has really recognized this is the Institute for Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). Born in 2000, the Canadian government began to fund knowledge development from biomedical to population health for both males and females. They foster research to explore how sex and gender influence health, as both sexes and individuals across the gender spectrum experience health challenges differently. This cuts across all areas of their health research.
Across the world, there is greater recognition that more has to be done to gather scientific data on both sexes in order to build better programs for women, girls, men and boys. However, it is also important that the data is used and reaches the right people to make balanced decisions at community and national levels. Acting on the paucity of data we have on women and girls currently cannot lift communities out of poverty or enable the long-term sustainability of economies, as governmental decisions are grounded in biased data.
Gender balanced data can transform countries. This International Women’s Day, let’s ask for gender balance in every way possible.
Dr. Daniel Kimani is a trained and licensed medical officer in Kenya, holding a Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery, and a post-graduate certificate on basic oncology training. Dr. Kimani is the founder of the Global Cancer Care and Research Institute, and is an expert in clinical colposcopy — a procedure to examine the cervix, vagina, and vulva.