As a 2012 study put it, “the gender difference in cancer susceptibility is 1 of the most consistent findings in cancer epidemiology.”5

The authors of that analysis concluded, “the gender differential in susceptibility can give important clues for the etiology of cancers and should be examined in all genetic and non-genetic association studies.”

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Years later, however, “women tend to be significantly underrepresented in research both as researchers and research participants,” according to an international group of 45 doctors, researchers, and policy advisors who issued what they called a “global call for action to include gender in research impact assessment,” in July.6

The authors cited the 2009 analysis of 661 clinical studies involving more than a million participants, which found that “the majority of studies analyzed included a lower proportion of women than the proportion of women among patients having cancer of that type in the general population…among non-sex-specific studies, the mean percentage of participants who were women was 38.8%.”7

It’s true in a wide range of diseases, not just cancer. And there have been efforts to improve: at the start of 2016, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) added new guidelines for addressing sex as a relevant biological variable to its grant application policies.

The challenge, however, remains. As Carolyn M. Mazure, director of Women’s Health Research at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, wrote in a lengthy examination of efforts published in BioMed Central (BMC) Women’s Health, the disparities continue to exist more than 2 decades since the implementation of the federal law that first required researchers seeking NIH funding to address the issue.8

“The key message of this paper,” she wrote, “is that it has been 20 years since the first requirements to include women as well as men in clinical trials and analyze results by sex were mandated by a US federal law, yet not nearly enough progress has been made.” 


  1. Yuan Y, Liu L, Chen H, et al. Comprehensive characterization of molecular differences in cancer between male and female patients. Cancer Cell. 2016;29(5):711-22.
  2. Lung cancer fact sheet. American Lung Association website. Accessed November 2016.
  3. Kim SE, Paik HY, Yoon H, Lee JE, Kim N, Sung MK. Sex- and gender-specific disparities in colorectal cancer risk. World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21(17):5167-75.
  4. Park SY, Wilkens LR, Kolonel LN, Monroe KR, Haiman CA, Le Marchand L. Exploring differences in the Aspirin-Colorectal Cancer Association by Sex and Race/Ethnicity: The Multiethnic Cohort Study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2016 Oct 10. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-16-0560 [Epub ahead of print]
  5. Dorak MT, Karpuzoglu E. Gender differences in cancer susceptibility: an inadequately addressed issue. Front Genet. 2012;3:268.
  6. Ovseiko PV, Greenhalgh T, Adam P, et al. A global call for action to include gender in research impact assessment. Health Res Policy Syst. 2016;14(1):50.
  7. Jagsi R, Motomura AR, Amarnath S, Jankovic A, Sheets N, Ubel PA. Under-representation of women in high-impact published clinical cancer research. Cancer. 2009;115(14):3293-301.
  8. Mazure CM, Jones DP. Twenty years and still counting: including women as participants and studying sex and gender in biomedical research. BMC Womens Health. 2015;15:94.