Building a Home for Interdisciplinary Gender-Based Research

November 13, 2016 - This fall, a standing-room only colloquium at Georgetown University marked the debut of the Gender Justice Initiative, which is intended to promote interdisciplinary research around gender.

The idea for the Gender Justice Initiative came up when Denise Brennan, PhD, professor and chair of the anthropology department, mentioned to Lisa Krim, senior adviser to the president for faculty relations, that she found herself seeking connections outside of Georgetown for collaboration on her work with gender studies.

Described by Brennan as “the faculty whisperer,” Krim held exploratory conversations with faculty from the main campus as well as the medical and law centers to discuss ways to unlock Georgetown’s potential in the area of gender justice. “Out of that work, the idea of the Gender Justice Initiative emerged,” Krim said. “We’re convinced that this work is happening here and see so many opportunities to create connections and collaborations.”

“We have had different smaller programs related to gender but no one large umbrella home that really highlights scholarship,” Brennan said. “There seems to be a real hunger out there for these linkages and institutional visibility.”

Gender Justice in Health and Medicine

In medicine, there are countless ways in which sex differences lead to health inequities, said Kathryn Sandberg, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Aging and Disease. “We’re very different and our inequities translate into how we express disease,” she said. For example, the onset of hypertension typically occurs earlier in men than in women, Sandberg said. “That’s not fair and understanding what protects women there will help us help men.”

Faculty members at the fall colloquium addressed a variety of topics related to gender justice and medicine including the relationship between sex differences and brain disorders, the impact of including men in family planning and psychological responses to abuse.

“If you think about it in terms of injustice, there are health disparities in medicine related to gender but also law,” Sandberg said. “We recognize that a lot of people here at Georgetown are trying to address disparities from a legal point of view, a medical point of view and a scientific point of view.”

Each of the five priority areas identified through the GUMC community engagement process - aging and age-related diseases, brain and behavior, cancer, global health and population health - has a gender justice dimension, Krim said. “There’s no limit to the number of collaborations that can emerge with the medical center,” she said. “It’s really limited only by the interests of our faculty.”

Taking a Broad View of Gender

One of the challenges with addressing gender justice is defining gender. “One of the basic questions in gender studies right now is what is gender made of, what do we mean by sex differences, how are they constituted?” said Naomi Mezey, associate dean and professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “That is an issue that’s legal, historical, philosophical and anthropological.”

The Gender Justice Initiative will look at gender in the broadest sense while also considering the many ways in which gender justice intersects with race, class, religion and more, Mezey said.

“There’s no question that intersectionality is going to be a big part of the work going forward,” Krim said.

Looking Ahead

Future programming from the Gender Justice Initiative may include co-sponsored events, a speaker series, faculty seminars, postdoctoral fellowships, networking events, visiting professorships or pilot projects. “I think what we want is to be a beacon for scholarship related to gender justice,” Brennan said.

For now, the faculty members involved are brainstorming the best ways to harness the momentum from holding a standing-room only conference, Brennan said. “I received many emails from faculty who expressed excitement that we are trying to fill in a gap as well as frustration that this hasn’t been done yet.”

Regardless of the specific form the Gender Justice Initiative ultimately takes, the organizers emphasized the importance of building a long-term home for people with a passion for the subject matter. “We’re trying to take our cues from what people at Georgetown are interested in but also trying to create some institutional structure so there is a place for shared ideas,” Mezey said.

Part of that work involves building bridges between like-minded faculty members in departments and schools across Georgetown - something that Brennan has found especially rewarding. “You just feel like you’re a part of a real vibrant intellectual community,” she said. “There really are so many talented faculty that are on the front lines of fighting for gender justice.”

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications