A Genderful Research World: The journey of sex- and gender-sensitive research in health

Learn about how our team developed and evaluated an innovative, playful repository of resources to help health researchers integrate sex and gender into their work.
Published in Sustainability
A Genderful Research World: The journey of sex- and gender-sensitive research in health
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BioMed Central
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A genderful research world: rapid review, design, and pilot study of an interactive platform for curated sex and gender health research resources - International Journal for Equity in Health

Background Integration of sex and gender into health research is best practice for designing and conducting equitable, rigorous scientific research. Many evidence-based resources exist to support researchers in this endeavour, but such resources often remain underutilized as they are difficult to find, are not publicly accessible, or are specific to a particular research phase, context, or population. The development and evaluation of a repository of resources was deemed important to create an accessible platform for promoting sex- and gender-integration in health research. Methods A rapid review was conducted of critical resources for conducting sex and gender health research. These were integrated into a prototype website design (the Genderful Research World; GRW) that provided an interactive digital landscape for researchers to access these resources. A pilot study evaluated the GRW website for applicability, desirability, and usability with an international sample of 31 health researchers from various disciplines and career stages. Quantitative data from the pilot study was summarized with descriptive statistics. Qualitative data was summarized narratively and used to identify concrete elements for improvement in a second design iteration. Results Results of the pilot study revealed that the GRW was considered user friendly and desirable by health researchers and helped them access relevant information. Feedback suggested that providing these resources in a playful way may enhance the experience of the user, particularly given the high ‘desirability’ scores and that users emphasized the interactive layout as being key to their intention to integrate it into their teaching endeavors. Key feedback from the pilot study (e.g., addition of resources specific to research with transgender populations, revision of website layout) was integrated into the current version of the website: www.genderfulresearchworld.com . Conclusions The present research suggests a utility for a repository of resources for integrating sex and gender considerations into research, and that providing a logical, intuitive means of cataloguing and navigating such resources is critical for usability. The results of this study may inform the development of other novel researcher-directed resource curation efforts to address health equity issues and encourage and support health researchers to integrate a sex and gender perspective in their work.

Health research has historically taken a one-size-fits all approach, using male participants as the default model for understanding disease development and progression. This approach assumed that male bodies were representative of the entire population, and would be less complex to study due to the absence of factors like menstrual cycles and pregnancies (a notion that has since been disproven). This oversimplified perspective has led to research that fails to account for important differences between men, women, and gender-diverse people that can impact assessment, treatment, and outcomes. 

Despite the growing recognition of sex- and gender-related health factors, such as hormonal influences, biomechanics, sociocultural factors, psychosocial experiences, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics, the importance of incorporating sex and gender in health research has been largely ignored for many decades. 

An important step towards health equity is collecting and analyzing data in ways that are inclusive for all, but also acknowledge the important nuances and differences that exist between individuals based on identity or group membership.   As researchers focusing on sex and gender in health, we have seen the tremendous importance of integrating these dimensions into health research design. Such work has highlighted critical gaps in our knowledge, such as the varying efficacy of certain treatments based on sex, gendered biases in the healthcare system, and  the erasure of intersex, trans, and gender-diverse voices from health research. 

Fortunately, positive changes are taking place. Funding bodies and journals are increasingly pushing for scientists to incorporate sex and gender into their health research. However, this is not as simple as adding a few extra statistical tests. Our colleagues often ask us for support in navigating the complex challenges of addressing sex and gender in research design, recruitment, analysis, dissemination, team composition, and more. Many fantastic resources exist for supporting the integration of sex and gender in health research. However, these resources are often not well utilized as they are difficult to locate, not publicly accessible, or are too specific. In a recent paper in the International Journal for Equity in Health, we describe how we developed and evaluated a resource repository to overcome this challenge: the Genderful Research World (GRW).

Our team met while completing the ZonMw Gender in Research fellowship, where we were paired up and tasked with coming up with a creative solution to a problem facing sex and gender research in health. Drawing on our diverse backgrounds and disciplines, we identified a common goal: making sex and gender health research resources available to the people who need them. With the generous support of ZonMw: The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Institute for Gender and Health, the GRW project was launched!

We began by conducting a rapid review of critical resources for conducting sex and gender health research. Our goal was to locate valuable resources for each phase of the research process, ensuring representation across pre-clinical, clinical, and public health research. We compiled these resources into the GRW website, collaboratively designed with a professional web developer.  We prioritized making the website playful to increase engagement, and  easy to navigate to the specific resource desired. We included quizzes to help users assess their knowledge, and built the website around the theme of a map of a nature landscape to encourage exploration.

At GRW, users can find quizzes to assess their knowledge, and they will discover a treasure trove of resources to enhance their research endeavors. We believe that providing easy access to existing resources is more effective than reinventing the wheel. The feedback from health researchers who participated in feasibility and usability testing has been overwhelmingly positive. They found the website applicable, user-friendly, and particularly appreciated its visual aspects. We incorporated their feedback for suggested improvements into the current version of the website:  https://genderfulresearchworld.com/ We encourage everyone to bookmark it for your next project or teaching endeavor!

We hope that these methods inspire other researchers working in health equity spaces to undertake similar initiatives to design and evaluate ways of helping researchers navigate key resources. Together, we can bridge the gap and ensure that health research is comprehensive, inclusive, and reflective of the diverse population it serves.

Visit the Genderful Research World website at: https://genderfulresearchworld.com/ and join us in this exciting journey towards sex- and gender sensitive health research!

Shared on behalf of the GRW authorship/research team.

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