BY SRIYA SADANGI, junior
Let’s face it: men have dominated the workplace for decades. Women have repeatedly been typified as homemakers and mothers confined to the domestic sphere, subpar to men. But when is enough, enough? It is clearly unethical to let this unfair advantage slide by in the workplace, but that is not the only area of society in which such injustice is prevalent. More and more medical trials are experiencing the same issue. Whether it is formulating a new and potential cure for cancer or understanding why a specific gene exists, medical trials continue to advance and shock the world with their innovations. However, with each trial and the results it brings, the gender gap becomes increasingly clear: the presence of women in these trials is scarce. Considering that they compose half of the world’s population, women should not be rejected from medical trials and ignored when it comes to discovering the effects of a possible cure in the medical atmosphere.
It only seems natural for women to be equally represented in medical trials. This is especially true for trials aiming to discover potential cures for currently untreatable diseases, such the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which afflicts tens of thousands of people every year and has no known cure. As scientists progress toward possible cures, the trials they administer overwhelmingly favor males. According to the New York Times, “women represented a median of 11 percent of cure trials,” a shockingly low demographic, especially considering that “women make up just over half of the 35 million people living with HIV worldwide.” The fact that women are extremely underrepresented in medical trials is emphasized by this very low percentage of women in HIV research, even when women make up half of the world’s population. With this in consideration, it only seems logical for women to make up half of these medical trials as well, not 11 percent. Furthermore, Rowena Johnston, the director of research of The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), states that “if we’re going to find a cure, it’s important that we find a cure that actually works for everybody.” If the potential cure is only tested in men, it could be incorrectly assumed to work on all genders. Without the inclusion of women, cures found from the trials may be unsafe for those who are neglected from them, and thus work to harm these individuals rather than to help them.
Differences between the effects of cures on men and women are exemplified in Alzheimer’s and lung cancer research. According to The Guardian, twice as many women as men are affected by Alzheimer’s; despite this, research on Alzheimer’s has only begun to focus on women recently. Researchers found that hormonal changes during menopause and sex differences in gene expression affect the prevalence of the disease in women. These differences interact in different ways to produce diseases that react differently to cures. Additionally, research into lung cancer, which kills more women yearly than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined, has found that certain lung cancer treatments are more effective with women than they are with men. Moreover, recently, the rate of lung disease in men has been declining while the rate of lung disease in women has been increasing, as stated by the United States National Library of Medicine, highlighting the need for separate research for cures for both men and women alike.
Discrepancies between those involved in clinical studies and those affected by the disease are also apparent in the case of heart research. It is a known fact that cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death among both men and women; therefore, clinical trials involving treatment for the disease should include both genders. This, once again, is not the case. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, “in trials supporting 36 cardiovascular approvals, of 224,417 participants, just 34% were women.” This statistic is incredibly low given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, having taken the lives of almost 300,000 women in the U.S. in 2017. The high death rate alone should be enough to convince medical professionals that a larger number of women is required to run the trial; however, clinical trials perpetuate the practice of excluding women. Cardiovascular disease also has different signs and symptoms in women, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and thus can be cured in different ways. By failing to include women in medical trials, possible cures will once again be one-sided and benefit only men.
This discrepancy extends beyond the human race; rodents and other lab rats are subjected to similar conditions. In 2010, a study from the Neuroscience Behavior Review revealed that, on average, males outnumbered females at a ratio of 5.5 to 1. This ratio, moreover, was only increasing, widening the gap between the amount of females and the amount of males used in laboratory testing. Furthermore, until the late-20th century, it was not widely accepted that male brains functioned differently to female brains; therefore, male and female test subjects seemed interchangeable, despite having different anatomical structures in key areas like the brain. Drugs were not being tested on these female mice, meaning that gender-specific effects of certain drugs could not be detected until it was too late. The exclusion of animals from drug testing on the basis of gender severely hinders the success of the drug in future clinical trials.
However, this is only the immediate impact of neglecting women from medical trials. If this process is allowed to continue, the future of the human race and of advancing scientific knowledge will remain limited. If women continue to be excluded from medical trials, they will remain on the outskirts of innovation and experience. This problem will expand to encompass not only clinical trials, but also other areas concerning basic rights that all humans should be granted, such as equal representation. By not including women, the medical community sets a false precedent that women are scientifically inferior to men and that their wellness should not be held in high regard.
Some may contend that much progress has already been made regarding the inclusion of women in medical trials. According to Boston University Today, inclusion “is better than it was 25 years ago,” mostly due to the fact that the National Institute of Health created a rule that required trials to state whether or not they included women. But simply whether or not the inclusion of women is stated does not mean they have been included to the necessary extent. The fact remains that the number of women in medical trials is few in comparison to the number of men in medical trials. Without the inclusion of women, it will be impossible to advance medical knowledge for approximately half of the world’s population. More importantly, without the inclusion of women, the human race will be unable to progress as a whole.