Guest post: MSexism 3 – gender bias in the MS community

Women experts launch a call to action to end gender bias in the MS community.

More than one hundred female academic neurologists and neuroscientists worldwide have called on pharmaceutical companies, MS conference organisers and journal editorial boards to make changes to achieve greater gender equality. 

In a Letter to the Editor published online last week in the Annals of Neurology, the women said gender bias in the MS scientific community was not only costly from a personal career perspective, but it excluded or delayed important contributions from skilled and talented individuals. This, in turn, they said could affect the further understanding of the disease and the development of more effective treatments.

Dr Clifford B Saper, Editor-in-Chief of the Annals, believed the high number of signatories attached to the letter was a record in the journal’s history and certainly the largest during his five-year tenure. Compelling evidence, it appears, of the importance and strength of feeling behind the issue.

The writing and gathering of signatures was spearheaded by Emmanuelle Waubant, Professor of Neurology at the University of California. She said she was compelled to act after reading an earlier letter in the Annals (Volume 82 No 2, Moneim et al) showing that less than one in four – 23% – women were included as authors on MS Phase Three clinical drug trials from 1993 to 2016. (CoI – I was a co-author on this letter).

“We were stunned by how few women were on clinical trial steering committees and decided to do something about it,” said Waubant, on the telephone from California. She, along with a handful of colleagues, originally wrote a draft letter and began to circulate it. Soon dozens of women from more than fifteen countries were offering suggestions and edits. “A lot of women wanted to participate. It really snowballed.”

Waubant added a few younger academics were at first reluctant to sign the letter – fearing it might jeopardise their career advancement.

The “call to action” includes urging professional organisations to set up task forces to gather and analyse data on gender imbalances in clinical trial leadership, authorship committees, editorial boards, conferences and scientific programs. It is also key that representatives from funding entities and pharmaceutical companies, who sponsor the clinical trials, be included. 

The letter also suggests establishing specific goals towards achieving equal representation by women at all levels, developing mechanisms to track this progress and to put systems in place to report inequalities. Finally, it emphasises the need to support and mentor women – especially those in junior positions.

To help achieve these aims, Waubant and her colleagues have set up the International Women in MS (iWiMS) as a lobbying group.

Waubant was quick to point out that this was not a ‘women only’ movement. “We certainly want to involve men in our next efforts and we are looking at ways to do this.” She also emphasised that going forward, she and her colleagues were keen to promote all aspects of diversity – not just focus on gender. “Our aim is to move towards a truly equal opportunity environment in the MS community. To do this, we need everyone to be involved.”

We look forward to seeing the response.

By Rachel Horne

Rachel is a journalist interested in health and women’s issues. She has an Hons BA from McGill University and a Masters from Columbia University School of Journalism. Previously she covered international news in China and financial news for CNN in London. She has MS.

Read the first MSexism post 
Read the second MSexism post, The Mystery of the Missing Authors

About the author

Rachel Horne


    • We actually debated this issue at dinner tonight and not everyone was in favour of affirmative action. Are you?

      When the brief is to choose the best speakers for the topic you have to pause and ask who are the 'best women speakers for that topic'.

      The other problem we also have is that many women who are invited to speak say no, or pull out, so you need to overcompensate at baseline to make sure you get the balance right in the end.

    • There is so much evidence that women *aren’t* being asked. I suspect that many men also say no or pull out, it’s just that there is a greater pool of people that immediately spring to mind to ask. Maybe it’s worth looking at the actual numbers who were asked, and who declined rather that basing comments on impressions. It’s through this that unconscious bias and lack of thought just perpetuate imbalance.
      I wonder, when you discussed at dinner last night, how many women were round the table?
      Excuses and accepting tokenism has allowed the public imbalance to persist. How do you define the “best expert”? The person who has given the most talks previously – if so you may well get the same talk again! Sometimes thinking outside the box gives the most insightful and challenging talks – even if they are outside the usual suspects!

  • I am following with an interest the debate around the MSexism issue. I think there is a bit of a truth there. I agree with the Annals letter:
    when it comes to ad boards, steering committees and leadership of
    international trials, men get a greater opportunity to contribute than
    women. But I also agree with your position – when you are to put
    together a suit of speakers that can address a given issue from the
    angles that you need covered, gender does not play a role. You want
    someone who you can rely on and who will speak to the topic in a
    stimulating way.

  • It is interesting that these women, who are all MD's, also fail to acknowledge the plight of their female colleagues who are in the non-MD academic route. Low pay,poor benefits, and often no retirement for people going the Postdoc-> Associate Professor/basic science research route.This predominately harms women and minorities.

    • As one of the non-MD signatories on this letter representing the neuroscientists, I can confirm that we definitely wanted to make sure that all MS researchers were represented in this letter, not just MDs.

  • Agree some truth in possible gender bias reasons need to be thought through. No mention of the other diversity issue. If you look at speakers lists/trial boards – not just gender the issue but overwhelmingly speakers are all white. Medicine has more people of colour than the background population in most countries – are they being fairly represented, does anyone care about this?

  • Comment by Rachel: I think you make a very good point, Anon (need for general diversity) – and one that Prof Waubant and her colleagues are aware of (see last quote). I think the traditional idea of MS affecting those from Western Europe and North America is being turned on its head – as its prevalence grows in places like India, Africa and Asia. Knowing this, it is key we need to have and hear from a diverse group. I am looking to write a piece next about this.

By Rachel Horne



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