06/25/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

A New Look at Gender Bias

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For women, the most important news in the Wednesday, May 14, edition of the New York Times wasn't war, or kidnapping or fires. It was an article by Roni Caryn Rabin titled "Labs Are Told to Start Including a Neglected Variable: Females." It contains a breakthrough concept -- a revolution really. Women are not identical to men. They deserve their own attention. The National Institutes of Health has announced that the routine gender bias in basic research must end.

Throughout history, women have been regarded as being like men -- but weaker and dumber. Therefore, ancient and recent male philosophers and male writers have occupied themselves with studying their own kind, men, and presumed their observations described women as well. The History of Mankind has not included the History of Womankind.

It seems that this bias toward males still exists in American research labs. When scientists investigate new drugs to cure diseases, they test them on male rats and men and extrapolate their results to women. If a new drug lowers cholesterol in male lab rats and men, then it is presumed to lower cholesterol in female lab rats and women. This presumption is so strong that it's seldom tested. Women are prescribed new medications that don't work, make them sick, or kill them because the pills weren't tested on women.

For example, cholesterol-lowering drugs, statins, are one of the most widely prescribed drugs in America. They were tested mostly on men, and evidence of their benefit to women is limited. Indeed, the Jupiter trial, one large study that did include 6,801 women over age 60, found no significant reduction in heart attacks, strokes and deaths among healthy women taking statins, whereas similar men on statins had significantly fewer heart attacks and strokes. So until studies use female subjects, many women may be taking statins and suffering side effects uselessly.

Also, women were recently advised to take half a dose of Ambien, a popular sleep medication, because they metabolize the drug differently than men and could have severe side effects from taking a stronger dose.

Because men have held dominance over women for centuries, they consider themselves the gold standard for humanness. To them, to be male is to be human. Women are a variation on their theme and judged by their similarity, or sexual attractiveness, to males. The men writers of the Bible envisioned the first female, Eve, as created from Adam's rib. She was a spinoff of the male, not a person in herself. She was made of Adam's flesh, so she owed Adam for her very existence. For eons, women have not been allowed a sense of self. They've been seen as extensions of men.

Women want equality with men as subjects of study. Women are not men. They are women and should be studied as women, not as the shadows of men. Neuroscientists have been performing single-sex studies of male animals 5.5 times more often than female studies and getting results that don't apply to women.

When scientists do study women's data separately they make interesting discoveries. For example, one experiment compared female neurons from neurons cultured from males and found that the male neurons were more susceptible to starvation than the females' were because of differences in the ways their cells process nutrients

Perhaps separating female data from male data would answer questions like why, every year, more boys than girls are born in the U.S., (105 males for every 100 females) but, 85 years later, there are twice as many women alive than men? Why did the women live? Why did the men die? Only by separating data, will we ever know.

Women scientists foresee resistance to the new guidelines of studying females as separate from males. Inertia and the cost of adding female rats to investigations are seen as excuses for not implementing the changes.

I have an idea to save money on cages. Since male scientists have no problem with applying male findings to women as though the two sexes are the same, let's just replace the male rats with female rats and apply female results to men. Fifty-one percent of the world population is female, so the findings on female rats would be most applicable. Let men have muscle cramps or headache side effects because their new drug wasn't tested on males.

There are countless injustices that women feel incapable of changing in the short term. For example, the United Nations Development Programme's studies show that women do 66 percent of the world's work, produce 50 percent of the food, earn 10 percent of its wages and represent 70 percent of the poor. These lopsided numbers are contested by some, but no one argues that wealth and power are unfairly distributed between men and women and the inequalities will take decades to change.

However, the injustice of not-woman-tested, second-hand medications can be changed by concerted action today. Women can join the NIH in its call to make research studies equally focused on female and male subjects. Before taking a new medication, women should know if it's been tested on females. If it's only been tested on males, they should refuse to take it. When a drug company can't sell a new drug to 51 percent of the population, it will listen to demands for separate female research.