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This page was published on 06/03/2007
Published: 06/03/2007

   Science in society

Published: 6 March 2007  
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Science in society  |  Human resources & mobility


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Ethics committees fall short of gender equality, study suggests

The EU has gone to great lengths to reach out to women interested in science careers, however rules and regulations come up short when dealing with ethics committees reviewing research applications, a new study claims. The study, published in the Journal for Medical Ethics, reviewed current practices across Europe and found that not enough is being done to address the gender imbalance among research ethics committees (RECs). In addition to being under-represented in research sanctioning bodies, sex and gender-specific risk-benefit analysis of project findings is not sufficiently considered.

Only Sweden was found to have legislation containing rules for women on ethics committees. © Matt+
Only Sweden was found to have legislation containing rules for women on ethics committees.
The study, headed by Dr Clara J Moerman of the University of Amsterdam, studied two RECs in five different EU Member States: Austria, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Sweden. In examining the track record of individual committees, the study investigated two critical questions relating to gender issues. One was whether or not existing procedures expressly called for women or those with gender expertise be represented, and the second considered how sex and gender issues would be dealt with in evaluating prospective results.

Issues related to RECs have the potential of greatly influencing European research, as RECs decide whether or not a particular proposal is up to ethical standards and of sufficient quality to merit funding.

The study team reviewed documents provided by RECs and interviewed their members, and discovered that many had informal procedures to ensure that women were represented, yet few had any official rules. Sweden was the only country to have clear national guidelines in place regarding sexes. All committees took gender into account when recruiting new members, but again no formal measures were recorded.

As for subjects of research projects, all RECs made efforts to ensure that pregnant women or women of childbearing age were protected, though further gender issues were not considered. Possible benefits or side-effects of a given study were not assessed with sex-specific variables taken into consideration.

Authors of the study acknowledge that policy is specific when dealing with women participating in health research funded by the EU, but when it came to ethics committees, it “paid only limited attention” to the issue.

They also emphasise that gender issues are left out of the recent EU clinical trials directive intended to harmonise practice across the Community. They recommend that more be done to understand the importance of gender differences in health, and EU-wide policy and recommendations are needed to guarantee gender equality on RECs.

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See also

Journal of Medical Ethics
Gender equality on Europa
Ethics in EU-funded research
Women and EU-funded research

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