Right away, it is important to make a distinction between sex and gender as can be some confusion as to the meanings of both words. Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, but they should not be used as synonyms. In general, sex refers to the biological, genetic (two chromosomes XX, as opposed to XY), and physiological processes related to sexual beings. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the roles, relationships, and relative power that people relate to or that societies generally attribute to women and men, irrespective of their genetic make-up. However, it is very difficult to separate sex and gender because they are multi-dimensional, entangled, and interactive. Thus (following Franconi et al.), we recommend using the mixed term “sex–gender”, in order to recognize the value of both the biological and social contexts.

Researchers (especially in clinical medicine for example) have mainly studied only the male sex, and this has generated a lack of high-quality evidence, even though this issue was raised more than 20 years ago.

Nowadays, at least among the academic community, there is a greater awareness of sex-gender relevance in health and illness research. However, according to our keynote speaker, Angela Saini, there have not, in fact, been a wide range of sex differences identified when it comes to health. Indeed, very often, differences have been presumed when they do not exist, which is itself a product of sexism. Saini argues that sex/gender differences must be proven, rather than assumed. Great damage has been done historically in assuming that differences are more profound than they really are (see some examples). Saini argues that if we see disparities, we have to be careful about diagnosing them, because those disparities may be social in cause rather than biological.

There has been a recent swell in activity by health research funding organizations and science journal editors to increase uptake of sex and gender considerations in study design, conduct and reporting in order to ensure that research results apply to everyone. However, examination of the implementation research literature reveals that attention to sex and gender has not yet infiltrated research methods in this field.

Keynote presentation: Angela Saini

Angela Saini, award-winning author of gender and science books.


Saini was named European Young Science Writer of the Year in 2009 and her first book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, published in 2011, was named a book of the year by The Independent. Her second book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, was published in 2017. The magazine of the Institute of Physics, Physics World, named Inferior as book of the year 2017.