The underrepresentation of female research subjects in exercise research correlates with the gender of the researchers conducting the study, according to new findings presented at the American Physiology Summit.
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The lack of women in research studies has resulted in gaps in understanding of how interventions will affect women at the clinical trial stage. Often, the researchers noted that a better understanding of how treatments affect women does not occur until after the treatments are introduced to the wider public.
One example of this issue occurred in 2013, when the FDA called for the dosage of zolpidem (Ambien; Sanofi) and similar insomnia medications to be halved for women because researchers found that the active ingredient remained in their bloodstream much longer than had been assumed. The medications had originally been approved by the FDA at a time when women of childbearing age were discouraged from participating in clinical studies.
In the new study, a team of investigators analyzed 971 original research articles that reported findings from human studies in 3 journals: the Journal of Applied Physiology, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, and the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The investigators examined research published in 1991 and 2021.
In 1991, they found that 51% of papers were authored by all-male teams, which declined to 18% in 2021. All-female research teams also declined, from 1.8% in 1991 to 1.1% in 2021. Although the number of women participating in exercise studies increased from 1991, in 2021 women still only made up one-third of participants per study.
In both 1991 and 2021, the number of female study participants was lower when the last author of the study, usually the head of the lab conducting the study, was a man. In contrast, when 2021 studies had a woman as the last author, the studies included equal numbers of men and women as participants, which is reflective of the population.
The correlation between authors’ gender and participants’ gender grew stronger in 2021. Furthermore, this correlation did not stop with authorship. The investigators also found that more women in other leadership roles such as editorial board members also correlated with greater gender parity of research subjects in published findings.
Lack of Women as Research Subjects Connected to Lack of Women as Researchers. News release. American Physiological Society. April 21, 2023. Accessed April 17, 2023.