A lack of thorough research has severe consequences. This is particularly so for women, as a recent example of rare life-threatening blood clots resulting from Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccinations show. A just published study suggests that these events occur at least 10 times more often with the Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine than with other vaccines. Women are more than three times more at risk than men. Women above 60 years are also considerably affected. However, national vaccination campaigns in Europe do not reflect this. Why? Because women are invisible in Covid-19 vaccine trials to systematically detect side effects. When looking at the registration of almost 2,500 Covid-19 related trial studies, less than 17% mention gender as a recruitment criterion and only about 4% consider gender as a factor in their analysis.
European governments base their vaccination campaigns on information they receive from the European Medicines Agency (EMA). EMA itself relies on several data sources that also do not systematically consider gender differences. Oddly enough, while EMA does not distinguish blood clotting events following the injection of the Astra- Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine for men and women, it does distinguish seven different age groups. So while countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the UK distinguish vaccination by age, they do not do so by gender. The bottom-line is that – given the insufficient data – these European countries are not taking risks with young men at the expense of older women. But hey, it is a man’s world still. Who cares? Actually, I do and we all should.
The first self-driving cars did not recognise black people because they were calibrated for white people
Invisibility in research and innovation goes beyond only health issues. There are whole books filled with examples of women being ignored in various technological research areas with serious – sometimes fatal – consequences. Last year for the first time a Swedish car manufacturer used crash test dummies that actually resemble the bodies of women. If others would follow suit, we might actually recognise the fact that women are involved in accidents less often than men, but when they are, they are injured more severely, and then we can turn it around.
Invisibility in research and innovation also goes beyond gender. The first self-driving cars did not recognise black people because they were calibrated for white people. Another example is bias reflected in algorithms used for pre-selecting candidates for universities.
When you do research that affects human beings, you need to consider whether their diversity in gender, age, ethnicity and so on
TU Delft has taken pride in solving socio-economic problems at a large scale – and rightly so. Yet I feel that the next step is more than overdue. To give an example, last year I talked to two firms about using robots to include potential employees of all kinds and shapes. In the first firm, the all-male team immediately pointed at social workplaces for these people, while at the same time they were having severe trouble filling their open positions. In the other firm, I talked to the CEO. He immediately came up with several ideas to include female or older employees or people with a handicap by using robots for physical support and training tools.
TU Delft could make such a difference if it fostered an inclusive research strategy, thereby developing a globally unique research profile for itself. It may sound simple to do, but it is not easy. When you do research that affects human beings, you need to consider whether their diversity in gender, age, ethnicity and so on affects the research questions, methods, factors, analysis and reporting. How to do this? By using the convergence between engineering and social sciences. Why do it? Because it is the right thing to do. And because it is much more impactful than sticking to what we have always done.
Claudia Werker is Associate Professor Economics of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of TPM. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of TU Delft’s Works Council.