Objective Science Is Gender-Biased

7 years ago

The week before Thanksgiving, I was lucky enough to meet author and history professor Julie Des Jardins for a cup of tea to discuss her forthcoming book, The Madame Curie Complex. (The name - and picture - might seem familiar to BlogHer members. That's right: Julie is the sister of awesome BlogHer co-founder Jory Des Jardins. Clearly, talent, beauty, and brilliance runs in the family, but I digress...) When I heard about The Madame Curie Complex, though, I was excited regardless of the author's family pedigree. I wanted to read more about how science, something that is promoted as objective, non-biased, and, well, scientific, really is skewed by sexism and gender politics.

The book won't be out until March (what a great Easter or Passover gift!), but the galley that I read did not disappoint me. (OK, it disappointed me in that the sexist discrimination that was detailed in the book was yet another reminder of how humanity itself is pretty disappointing, but it's not Julie's fault that she documents human foibles so well.) The subject of the book (how cultural ideas about gender have shaped the methods, structure, and meaning of science itself) is easy to access through biographies and secondary characters. I learned about the distinction between "manly" science and "healing" science; the trap that Madame Curie unwitting set for future female scientists (you must be brilliant at what you do at work - although people will credit your husband or male lab partner for everything anyway - and you have to be a dedicated wife, spotless housekeeper, and perfect mother); and how women have traditionally served as underpaid lab assistants whose ideas are stolen by their male bosses who are in no way superior.

I also became obsessed with efficiency expert Lillian Gilbreth, who had 12 children and ran a business as an efficiency expert. (Two of her children went on to write Cheaper by the Dozen about their home life - thanks to Lori for the book review!) At first, her business was gangbusters, but then her husband died and suddenly Gilbreth found that no one wanted to hire a female efficiency engineer. And she had twelve kids to support. Brilliant woman that she was, Gilbreth decided to do what social roles permitted her to do with her extensive knowledge, so she focused on making homes and housework more efficient. She didn't denigrate this as "women's work," but took it as seriously and respect the "employees" as much as she did when she studied factory production and found ways to make the work easier for workers' health and safety.

Not long after Julie and I met, I picked up a copy of Metro New York, a free newspaper given out near subway stations to entertain/inform commuters on our to work. Lo and behold, the headline on page two screamed, Women's role not always scientific". Amy Zimmer's article went on to describe how science's "focus on facts hasn't always stopped gender politics from playing a role in math, science," and highlighted some prominent female scientists. What particularly struck me about the article is that all the women featured work in what Des Jardins describes as "healing" science, which is traditionally more acceptable because women are supposedly innate nurtures and lovers of plants, animals, and humans. (Which is not to say that Dr. Anne Moore, Marian Nestle, Eva Pastalkova, Mercedes Doretti, and Elaine Fuchs, the women in the article, are not awesome, smart, hard working, and brilliant scientists and doctors.)

Progress is fleeting. (Madame Curie's predicament is a little to familiar to many of us...) At Newsweek's Human Condition blog, Jeneen Interlandi reported that studies by Center for American Progress and National Academy of Sciences found that women scientists are punished for having families whereas male scientists suffer no consequences. Interlandi recommends:

Instead of obsessing over mother-scientists, universities should strive to create an atmosphere that encourages their male scientists to be active fathers. Only then will both genders be equally compelled to confront the family-work balance issue that right now rests too squarely on the shoulders of women.

Some suggestions: Pay female scientists as much as their male counterparts, so that when scientist couples plan for a family, the woman isn’t automatically compelled to ditch her career simply because she earns less and he earns more. Have paternity leave on par with maternity leave; if you’re going to stop the tenure clock for child rearing, extend that offer to new fathers as well as new mothers.

Sounds like a good plan to me! Back when I met with Julie, she had explained to me that feminism played an important role in cracking the objective facade of science. The rise of feminism took place when people in general began questioning what were held as empirical truths, and the shift in science from a "Father Knows Best" type of operating system allowed women to get in there and have access to truths, too. Because whether we admit it or not, as humans, we bring our experiences and perspectives to our work, and that includes science. Who knows what we could discover if we allowed more scientific exploration from people with a range of perspectives?

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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