Where Are All the Female Participants in Sports and Exercise Medicine Research?
Costello JT., Bieuzen F., Bleakley CM. European Journal of Sport and Science. 2014; Ahead of print
Take Home Message: Female athletes are under-represented in sports and exercise medicine research. This could have widespread implications to the clinical setting if we don’t know whether certain risk factors or treatments affect males and females differently.
Across different injuries and conditions significant differences exist between sexes (e.g., susceptibility of concussion, risk of knee injuries, and psychological response following injury). Research should be designed to allow us to identify outcomes and risk factors that may differ between sexes. However, examination of the number or percentage of male and females participating in research in sports and exercise medicine field has not been established. Therefore, the authors examined the sex of participants involved in research published in a sample of top Sports and Exercise Medicine journals (i.e., British Journal of Sports Medicine, American Journal of Sports Medicine, and Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise). Data were extracted from 1,382 articles from January 2011 to August 2013 involving > 6 million participants. A total of 2.37 million (39%) participants were female participants and 3.71 million (61%) were male participants. Females were consistently under-represented across all 3 journals (35 to 37% of participants). Only 4 to 13% of the articles incorporated females only, 18% to 34% were male only, and 53% to 78% of the articles included a cohort of both males and females.
This is an interesting article because it presents evidence of gender bias within the current sports and exercise medicine literature, where females are significantly under-represented. Although 53% to 78% of the articles published in the journals included a cohort of both sexes only 39% of the participants were female. Additionally, there were a greater amount of male only studies (18-34%) compared to women only studies (4-13%). The authors also looked at six systematic reviews that evaluated treatments for delayed-onset muscle soreness and found that females only represented on average 16 to 36% of the study populations. This suggests that women are being under represented not just in epidemiology studies but also intervention trials. Medical professionals rely on the current research to help determine the best care for their athlete, and it is difficult to generalize research to males and females when the studies do not have enough female participants. It is important to note that women make up ~43% of the high school and college athlete population. Hence if we look at this specific population then women may not be that significantly under represented; however, if you consider injured athletes or the general physically-active population then women are significantly under-represented since women make up ~50% of these populations. Due to the physiological and psychological differences between males and females, there needs to be equal inclusion of both sexes to truly define and generalize the findings. This is necessary to provide individual treatment and care to athletes. Medical professionals should be aware of this disproportion, and researchers should design their studies to assess each sex equally.
Questions for Discussion: Why do you think there is such a disparity between male and female participants in studies? How do you think researchers can improve to close this gap in the research?
Written by: Jane McDevitt, PhD
Reviewed by: Jeff Driban
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