We’ve been labelled ‘anti-sex difference’ for demanding greater scientific rigour

“[W]e and our colleagues have been named as “anti-sex difference”, and thus some of the prime culprits in creating this situation. This is like accusing the people who invented airbags as being “anti-seatbelts”. We are all aiming for better science.”

“Some of the errors and traps we identified included human neuroimaging studies with small sample sizes, and the common “snapshot” approach, which interprets neural associations with sex as a matter of timeless and universal male and female essences, without taking seriously the fact that biological associations might as easily be the effect of social differences as the cause of them.

For example, a study reporting female-male differences in spatial processing should take into account that women and men have different life experiences, on average, that can build such skills – such as practice with aiming at targets that comes from certain kinds of sports and video games. We also expressed concern about studies that draw on and reinforce stereotypes, even as they slip and slide regarding specific predictions about sex differences in the brain, and what findings might mean for how women and men think, feel, and behave.”


“One of our points was that many variables correlate with biological sex, including things such as bodyweight and muscle mass, as well as human-specific variables such as reinforced skills and experiences. If these aren’t taken into account, differences between the sexes may be inappropriately chalked up to the effects of biological sex. And the results of this misattribution can be harmful for women and men.

Take Ambien, a sleeping drug that both Lehmann and Cahill cite as an example of the harm to women from the use of a male norm in dosing. Lehmann even claims that we and our colleagues have “pushed” an “ideology” that “biological sex differences are trivial” that is “almost certainly … responsible for women overdosing on sleeping pills”. Yet Ambien is actually an example of the importance of considering variables that correlate with sex. As Lise Eliot and Sarah Richardson recently pointed out in the Journal of Neuroscience, bodyweight differences mediate most of the male/female difference in how quickly Ambien’s active ingredient, zolpidem, is cleared. “Hence, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s revised drug safety advisory about zolpidem actually recommended a lower dose in both women and ‘many men’.”

What does this mean, in medical practice? It means that women and men don’t have distinctly different responses, but instead have different responses on average – mostly a result of differences in body size. So if treatment is based on sex, then smaller-than-average men, and larger-than-average women, will be given the wrong treatment. Treating by sex, instead of by body size, actually results in more people being given the wrong treatment. This is not a trivial, philosophical issue. The point is that it is important to be thoughtful about how precisely sex matters – not just whether it is “good” or “bad” to look at sex.”

Fine, Cordelia and Rebecca Jordan-Young. 2017. “We’ve been labelled ‘anti-sex difference’ for demanding greater scientific rigour.” The Guardian, April 6. Retrieved April 9, 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/06/anti-sex-difference-scientific-rigour-gender-research-feminism). [Links and picture in original, emphasis mine.]

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