Open your mind

Sex is not gender (and I am not trying to be politically correct)

Today I have experienced first hand the benefits of having an open mind and the potential perils with the opposite.

Here is the gist of the story.

I am submitting a grant application to obtain funds to build a predictive model for risk stratification and outcome prediction in gynecological cancers. The grant application was asking to discuss whether we are going to consider sex and gender relationships. My first thought was

“No, we will not: gynecological cancers affect females only by definition. Females undergoing gender reassignment often choose to remove their uterus, cervix, ovaries, and fallopian tubes surgically so the risk of cancer to those parts would not apply. Males undergoing gender reassignement to become women would not possess these parts, thus cancer is no risk.”

I was happy with my answer.

The granting committee required, additionally, that all researchers complete a training module on sex and gender association as part of this application process. The training took a good 45 minutes to 1 hour to complete. I was rolling my eyes initially while thinking of all that is on my to-do list this morning as I watched a (very well prepared) course on sex and gender interactions.

After completing the training, I contemplated how narrow my initial view was I went back to my application and amended it.

What my initial reasoning failed to account for was the fact that gender is described more by behavioural characteristics that society delineates as masculine and feminine. In other words individuals can take on certain gender roles which influence how they live their lives, the decisions they make and that impacts their actions and outcomes. Gender then becomes a surrogate for other variables that we think of as typically associated with sex.

In health research for example, men are known to have higher risks of stroke owing perhaps to their stressful jobs and their traditional roles and responsibilities as the primary bread winners. If we fail to account for females who have stressful jobs and who are the primary bread winners, or those who are single parents, we will not be able to properly infer the risk for those females.

In marketing and web analytics, a similar reasoning applies. A friend was telling me recently about how women are generally more the dreamers/planners when booking family vacation trips, while men are more transactional and decision oriented. Assuming that this is true, can we ignore the role of gender in marketing? Are women who lead the lives that are more typical of men or vice versa being mis-marketed to?

This applies to many areas, and failing to think about gender as possibly different from sex might result in biased models.

Thank you CIHR for forcing me to open my mind.

Written on February 14, 2017