6. July 2023 | Magazine:

Against Blind Spots in Research How examining the relevance of gender and diversity can improve research results

Socially relevant dimensions such as gender, social and national origin and age are also receiving increasing attention in research. Funding institutions now require applicants to check whether gender and diversity issues are relevant in their project. To support researchers here, the Braunschweig Centre for Gender Studies has developed advisory services and an information website. In this interview, Juliette Wedl, Executive Director of the Centre, explains how these relevance checks work in practice and what advantages they offer.

Juliette Wedl and her team at the Braunschweig Centre for Gender Studies have created an information website for relevance tests in science. Photo credit: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

Mrs. Wedl, what is a relevance test?

In research proposals, it is important to check whether gender and other diversity dimensions are relevant in terms of content or methodology in relation to the research topic and should be taken into account accordingly. In the project “Geschlechterdimensionen in MINT-Disziplinen“ (Gender Dimensions in STEM Disciplines) we have compiled existing checklists and aids for this relevance test. These can be found on our website with case studies and further information. Our focus is on gender dimensions.

The aim is to support researchers with advice and materials so that they can make a scientifically sound assessment of whether gender and diversity dimensions play a role in their specific research. This assessment is already obligatory for research proposals, e.g. from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the EU. Its competent implementation increases the chances of success of applications.

What did the work on the website look like?

I presented the project, which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in a first step in the concept phase, in the summer of 2022 in the research JourFix of the “City of the Future”. There, STEM researchers asked basic follow-up questions, including what gender dimensions were, how their relevance was tested and how it could be done without prior knowledge. Answering these frequently asked questions for everyone was the impetus for the website. Understanding why gender and diversity dimensions are also important in STEM research is a prerequisite for being able to carry out the relevance check competently. Our website addresses this and gathers helpful material to support researchers. The explanations and the website were tested with researchers and further developed based on their feedback. We have thus practically created a central FAQ on the instrument of gender relevance testing, which also provides suggestions for other diversity dimensions.

How does the relevance test work?

The content of questions must always be geared to the concrete object of research. There are no ready-made answers. However, the checklists provide an initial orientation as to which questions are important. For example, it is crucial whether humans or animals are involved. If this is the case, gender and diversity dimensions are likely to be relevant. Scientific findings from other projects can also provide inspiration, which is why studying other case studies and publications can be helpful. It is important to approach the question from different angles.

What central offers are there at TU Braunschweig in this regard?

We offer the website and an advisory service as access options. The relevance check website is structured according to W-questions: What is relevance testing? Why is it important for research at TU Braunschweig? When and how can it be done? Who can help me with this at TU Braunschweig? The material website additionally refers to platforms on gender and STEM disciplines and has a literature collection sorted by topics and disciplines. It is still under construction. These pages are therefore a first point of contact for information and your own research. Scientists can also contact me and arrange a gender consultation. We will then use this tool and together we will explore possible points of contact and ideas. We also refer to experts who can be consulted in depth.

Do you have an example of a project that has used your advice?

The recently approved SFB/Transregio project by Prof. Sabine Langer, Institute for Acoustics, has approached us in the application phase. It is about acoustics issues in aircraft. Our first question was whether human-related data would be researched. We searched the application for relevant keywords and identified places. We also looked at what research already exists on this topic. We also found a publication from the field of acoustics on the DFG website. You don’t always have this luck. As a result of the consultation, the applicants in several sub-projects have anchored the further examination of the relevance of diversity dimensions as part of the project and thus marked it as a question to be researched further.

In addition to the information website, the Braunschweig Centre for Gender Studies also offers consultations for researchers who want to examine the relevance of diversity dimensions in their research. Photo credit: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

What were the diversity dimensions that were tested in the project?

In the specific case, human bodies play an important role. For example, the ability to hear and the perception of noise can differ from person to person due to vibrations caused by machine operation such as an aircraft. In this respect, it must be examined whether differences occur due to age or gender, among other factors. Accordingly, attention should be paid to a diverse composition of user groups. This should be reflected, for example, in the selection of test persons for experiments.

In general, one can establish the rule: Whenever there is an interface between humans and machines or artefacts, it must be examined whether gender or other categories of difference play a role. For natural sciences, this also applies to research on animals or with material from animals or humans.

How often do gender dimensions become relevant in research projects?

Gender dimensions play a role more often than one might think. The first reflex of scientists in the engineering and natural sciences is understandably often: “No, gender dimensions are not important in my research.” Because until now, these issues have received little attention. On closer inspection, it often turns out that a possible connection should at least be examined.

There are very well-known examples here: The airbag, which was originally only tested with crash test dummies modelled on average male bodies. It was only much later that dummies modelled on the injury characteristics of female bodies and children were added. Pregnant women are still hardly taken into account today. And yet, in Europe and the USA, the standard dummy is still 1.75 metres tall and weighs 78 kilos, so that the risk of injury is higher for groups of people who deviate from this norm.

Another example: drug development. Time and again, drugs are taken off the market because gender dimensions were not sufficiently clarified during development. With the instrument of relevance testing, these blind spots in research can be discovered in advance and quality, safety, acceptance and the like can be improved.

How does Germany fare here in international comparison?

Internationally, Germany has a lot of catching up to do. The STEM disciplines in German-speaking countries in particular integrate social and societal issues less often than in Anglophone countries. This is a question of subject culture. Incorporating gender perspectives and working interdisciplinarily with the humanities and social sciences is not yet widespread in Germany. In France, for example, it is much more common for engineers to have studied the humanities, cultural studies and social sciences and to be sensitised to the social perspectives of technology.

The humanities, cultural studies and social sciences are less often about artefacts than about social issues. What do gender dimensions look like here?

Here we are primarily dealing with people. Wherever people play a role, the significance of categories of difference must be examined. In this respect, it is not surprising that gender studies are more widespread in these disciplines and explore questions of gainful employment and care work, education, health and much more. With regard to mathematics and science subjects, studies show that students initially approach physics, for example, with a positive attitude regardless of gender. However, due to gender stereotypes, students’ confidence, abilities and performance quickly develop differently at school, creating and perpetuating gender differences in the subjects.

How do you motivate scientists to use the relevance test?

The relevance test improves the research results, which is in the interest of the researchers. If we stay with the airbag example, an airbag that protects pregnant women as well as all people under and over 1.70 metres and with different body types equally is a better safety system. It is thus aimed at the largest possible group.

However, research and the resulting applications can also be more target group-specific and thus more successful by taking differences into account. An example of this is the effect of medicines. In addition, the success rate of funding applications increases when gender dimensions are taken into account. The German Research Foundation and the EU already require relevance checks to be carried out when applying for projects. And the number of funding institutions that insist on relevance checks continues to grow. In fact, it is already impossible to do without checks, even in international comparison. To ensure that TU Braunschweig is equipped for this, we offer the appropriate support.

Thank you very much for the interview.