Women Remain Underrepresented in Medical Science, New Report Says

March 3, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC (March 3, 2014)—Two decades after a landmark law mandating the inclusion of women in biomedical research, sex-specific research is still not the norm, according to a new report. As a result, many women receive recommendations from their doctors for prevention strategies, diagnostic tests and medical treatments based on research that has not adequately included women or reported results on women.

Evidence of these practices exists at the same time diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and depression are disproportionately affecting women, raising questions about the impact of current science on women’s health.   

The report was co-authored by Susan F. Wood, PhD, executive director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), and colleagues at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Women are still underrepresented in biomedical research, and when included, often the differences between women and men are not analyzed fully. This is a gap that must be addressed in order to achieve better outcomes for women,” said Wood, who is an associate professor of health policy and environmental and occupational health at SPHHS. “Without adequate sex-specific research, women and men will continue to have trouble finding the information they need to stay healthy.”

Wood and her co-authors note this gap occurs at the early stages of research, when females are often excluded from animal and early human studies, or the sex of the subject isn’t stated in the published results, making the entire process—which ends in translation into practice and measurement of outcomes—inequitable because sex and gender differences are so often not included.

Among the findings of the new report:

  • Cardiovascular Disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, yet less than one-third of cardiovascular clinical trial subjects are female and less than one-third of cardiovascular clinical trials that include women report outcomes by sex.
  • More women die of lung cancer each year than from breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined; however, even when lung cancer studies include women, researchers often fail to analyze data by sex or include hormone status or other gender-specific factors, making it difficult to uncover differences in incidence, prevalence, and survivability between men and women.
  • Depression is the leading cause of disease burden in women worldwide. Twice as many women than men suffer from depression in the U.S., yet fewer than 45 percent of pre-clinical studies on anxiety and depression use female animals.
  • Even though a woman’s overall lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is almost twice that of a man, the prevailing thinking in the field is that this is simply because women live longer. However, the impact of hormonal changes at menopause and sex differences in gene expression have begun to emerge as potential explanations.

The report, "Sex Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait," was released in Boston at “Charting the Course: A National Policy Summit on the Future of Women’s Health,” and can be accessed online.


About the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services:

Established in July 1997, the School of Public Health and Health Services brought together three longstanding university programs in the schools of medicine, business, and education and is now the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Today, more than 1,100 students from nearly every U.S. state and more than 40 nations pursue undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral-level degrees in public health.  The school now offers an online Master of Public Health, MPH@GW, which allows students to pursue their degree from anywhere in the world. https://publichealth.gwu.edu/