There is a lack of gender equity in STEM — and a lack of female representation in biomedical research. Dr. Emily Jacobs, a professor and researcher in the psychological and brain sciences department at UC Santa Barbara, has a lot to say about it. As part of the Pacific Views Speaker Series, Jacobs gave a lecture last week in the library entitled, “The Uncharted Mind — The Scientific Body of Knowledge: Whose Body Does it Serve?”
Jacobs started off by talking about the lack of gender equity in the sciences. Women are systematically left out of science, and it starts at the kindergarten age. Research has found that from the age of 6, children of both sexes will pick a picture of a male when asked the question, “Who is a scientist?”
As Jacobs describes, there are implicit biases and stereotypes that start affecting children at very young ages, which stops girls from joining the field of science. There are few women in these fields to begin with, and the few that make it are weeded out by improper hiring practices and pay imbalances. Female scientists are often not hired for jobs that they are qualified for, they are granted less money for labs and there is a systematic pay gap between female and male scientists. According to Jacobs, half of all female scientists in the U.S. leave after having their first child.
“[These women] are not leaving because they are not good enough for their job. They are leaving because the job is not good enough for them.”
Beyond the consequences for individual women, Jacobs further emphasized how leaving women out of science “isn’t just about the cost to women, but it is about the cost to the world.”
“Advocating for diversity in science isn’t just a matter of social justice. It’s not just the right thing to do. Diversity in science makes science better. It drives innovation, it challenges the status quo and it changes the very nature of the questions we seek to ask. The reason for diversity transcends the moral imperative,” Jacobs said.
Similarly, in animal studies seeking to test medications and better understand human conditions, researchers overwhelmingly focus on males. This is even true in studies on conditions that are more dominant in female humans, such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s. Jacobs said that these conditions and medicines are tested and studied on male bodies, which obviously behave very differently from female bodies.
As Jacobs puts it, “most of what we know about health and disease is centered on the male body,” which can be very dangerous for women. Male bodies should not be considered the norm in science.
Even arguments for why this is standard practice don’t hold up to scrutiny, Jacobs said. The variability of a female’s menstrual cycle, for instance, has often been cited as the reason why female rodents are not used in medical trials. This, however, has been debunked, as male species have complicated hormones too, meaning that female lab rats are not less variable than males.
Currently, the Jacobs Lab at UCSB is studying healthy aging in women, specifically the menopausal transition. This has been dramatically overlooked in scientific studies before, and consequently very little is known about how menopause affects the brain. It may come as little surprise that there are few neuroscience studies on menopause, seeing as 80% of medical schools fail to include menopause in their curriculums. The Jacobs Lab is also studying the cycles of a woman’s 28-day cycle, and how the brain adapts and changes to the influx of different hormones.
The Jacobs Lab is additionally expanding female neuroscience research beyond UCSB. The University of California Women’s Brain Initiative, a women’s brain imaging database, will be able to be used by any researchers studying the endocrinology of women’s brains and has collection sites at both UCSB and UC Berkeley.
Jacobs closed with a call to action for the biomedical research community, a place which she knows too well is marked by the dominance of men.
“Now is the moment for women to claim themselves as central. We have got to claim the study of our bodies on our terms and to do that we need scientists and doctors whose vision isn’t blurred by the lack of experience,” Jacobs said.
“I have spent the better part of a decade fighting for women’s health to be taken as seriously as men’s health in the biomedical sciences and there are incredible scientists working on this front, but we cannot do it alone. Biomedical research has overwhelmingly overlooked women’s health. We are still struggling to understand fairly fundamental questions. We need more women in positions of power.”