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The Personal May be Political, but is it Scientific?

Flora's picture

In January 2005, the then president of Harvard College, Larry Summers, publicly questioned the intrinsic ability of women in the physical sciences in front of an audience of intellectuals. This incident became infamous and endlessly discussed. In January 2005, I was beginning my first semester back at Bryn Mawr College as a physics major after a one year leave of absence. At the time, I remember Summers' comments exploding across campus. The president of our college distributed a statement denouncing Summers' words. I remember thinking how lucky I was to go to an institution where my abilities would not be underestimated due to my gender. Although I remember reading several op-eds and discussing his remarks with friends, I never read the transcript of his talk or encountered a supporter of his views. The conversations I recall were very one-sided.

Two years later and I am no longer a physics major. Yet, while reading Summers' speech in its entirety for an interdisciplinary course on Gender and Science, I was again infuriated. I scribbled angry responses in the margins, aggressively underlined each offensive part and could not help but rejoice that this man was no longer in control of one of the most powerful academic institutions in the world. But this time, my reflexive indignation was not as strong as before. Wasn't this man, after all, making these remarks within the context of an academic setting? Wasn't his ostensible goal to find a certain truth? Did I really want to every public figure who disagrees with me ousted from his position? Where, I found myself asking, do unpopular theories belong in academic discourse? Was I rejecting his speech on its academic merit or because I disagreed with it? Was I really the sort of person who would reject any argument that did not fit into my world view without even considering it?

This question of “appropriateness” is a question that I often encountered in the three years I considered myself a future physicist. In my humanities and arts centered high school education, I had learned that many “revolutionary” scientific discoveries had been deemed socially inappropriate in their time. It is well known that Darwin resisted publishing Evolution of Species precisely because of the reaction he knew he would (and did) receive from the religious establishment. But he did publish it. In the same way, I did not find that a social appropriateness greatly informed the identity of future scientists in my college. If anything, it was marked a point of pride to be so devoted to science, you were unencumbered by any form of tradition: social or otherwise. This divorce from social mores went hand in hand with an emphasis on the importance of a free discourse. Thus emerged a paradox: any theory was fair game for discussion as long as it contributed to understanding the subject at hand. But which kinds of theories in discourse were defined as having this sort of utility and which did not?

Larry Summers explained the rules he was using to define what was appropriate in the reaction to his remarks and what was not. He wanted to “...try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality.”(Summers, 1) He was asking the audience to remove his remarks from the context of the historical wrongs suffered by women in science throughout centuries. That was, to him, not relevant to the discussion at hand and was in fact a “judgmental tendency.” This pointed exclusion of the personal was a common response to debate that ensued. Another prominent psychologist, Pinker, echoed Summers' call to impartiality in his response to Summers, saying "But it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex--which I take to be the core of feminism-- and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable...Anyone who takes an honest interest in science has to be prepared for the facts on a given issue to come out either way...The truth cannot be sexist." After setting the stage for their discourse, both men went on to enumerate their thoughts and theories, some of which they admitted were not well-researched or “proven”, in the spirit of broadening academic inquiry. They wished for the participants to put aside their personal prejudices and listen to his theories as to the reason women were underrepresented in science and engineering at top universities. “Judgmental tendencies” were to be avoided, because they would detract from the endeavor of solving the issue at hand. In the post-politically-correct twenty-first century, I felt myself starting to agree that yet, I should rise above my prejudices and self-victimization. As I started to chastise myself for my short-sightedness, I (of course) began to reflect even further on my personal experiences.

This sort of exclusion of personal feeling is a classical masculine model of discourse, a model with which I became very familiar in my experience in a women college's physics department. Many of my non-science courses used experimental teaching methods. Not only did they welcoming my personal experience into class discourse, they went so far as to legitimize them as part of the class text. My physics courses were primarily lecture based. These lectures rarely included a professor's personal frustrations while solving a problem set. If he would tell such a story, it would be viewed within the lens of an anecdote, not the text of the course. The experience and feelings around the doing of science were not as valued as much as their results. This separation felt isolating to me and some others I talked to who also chose to leave the department. I am not claiming that everyone in my department had the same experiences as I did. I know for a fact that several of my peers relished the absence of “touchy-feely” curricular methods. And I had some wonderful experiences in those traditional style classes, as well. Many of my friends were certainly much better at finding support networks within the department, a practice I am positive would have hugely helped me. I am not trying to portray the environment as a bleak place, it just felt that way to me.

When I look over my journals from the time, I found that I viewed personal emotions or extra-curricular struggles as something to suppress and overcome, not as tools or even part of the process of mastery. My experiences were not something I could use what scholars would call “cultural capital” in my classes, but more of an Achilles heel I had to hide from the outside world. I understood this as something inherent in the scientific process and it felt unnatural, a fracturing and censoring of my internal language. Doing problem sets was not a purely cerebral experience, it would often bring up unexpected emotions for me. I can remember when that happened, sitting and staring at my textbook, refusing to begin again until the feelings went away.

I don't mean to portray myself as a misunderstood genius or to suggest that all the answers as to why women scientists leave are to be found in my specialized experiences. I'm sure a lot of my neuroses arose before I set foot in the science building. Also, all of my professors can tell you that during this period I was not a very good student. Leaving the department is not a decision I regret. I felt I was fighting against myself, and both sides were losing. I grew tired of being an exception to the rule, of feeling that I had to live up to the model minority rule. With so much emphasis on the difficulty of being a woman in physics in the literature, I looked down that road and ran away. I could sense the disappointment in the social science professors I talked to while changing my major. Most told me that I would do more towards helping women by studying physics than I would by going into any more traditionally female occupation. But this was one case in which I could not submerge my feelings any longer. I wanted to feel I could integrate my life with my work without destroying part of myself. And here I am, an independent major in Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Now that I have some distance from the physical sciences, I have come to realize that my expectations of myself were unnecessary. I come from a strong arts background and, in this training, I grew to view work as a way of re-imagining and re-interpreting life. So many great pieces of art were created in response to terrible personal circumstances. I did not hear these narratives in physics, but I have come to believe that they must be there even if they are unspoken and unwritten. The hard scientists I met who were passionate, seemed to be passionate for the work itself, not the work interwoven with a person's life or even motivating factors, but that could have been the public face. Physics is intellectually located in a strange place: both explaining micro and macro processes of the world and seeming inaccessible to the general public. This superiority of knowledge is built into common expressions: you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Now, I find it much easier to see hard scientists on the same plane as other intellectuals. I don't think the deification of any sort of knowledge does anyone any good.

I could not (and I tried!) respond to the Larry Summers fiasco without integrating my own experiences into the discussion. I felt his remarks directed at me personally, that I dropped out not because of the social factors he mentioned because of a lack of intrinsic aptitude: I am defective. But I know this description does not describe my experiences.

I resent the classification of women in hard science as anomalies and exceptions to the rule. This sidelines them not only in discourse on science, but also in the category of women human beings. The women who do enter physical science are treated as stigmatized, with an enviable, exceptional disease. Medical anthropologist Adriana Petryna, while discussing her work with Ukrainians in post-disaster Chernoble, highlighted the ways in which the victims were not perceived to be credible witnesses to their own diseases. Am I a credible witness as to why women drop out of science? I'd like to think that I have more experience in the area than experts like Summers or Pinker. I know that the exclusion of personal narrative is a large, generalized feminist critique of the physical sciences.

On an even larger scale, it is certainly not trivial to question the implicit assumption that physical science can accomplish its loftiest goals with the inclusion of multiple perspectives. It is perhaps this attitude that hurts me the most. To what extent are people like me dispensable? I would argue that women do have something unique to offer, just as anyone with different life experiences do. And a variety of experience should be something valued in all aspects of the academy, even seeping into the supposed objective areas of physics. At this juncture, the question of whether or not the minority status of women in the physical sciences is a problem becomes part of a much larger question. Is diversity viewed as a means or an end? I kept asking Larry Summers and Pinker the same question in the margin: How do you turn the “judgmental tendencies” off? I don't know how to stop being angry at the history of women in hard science and academia.

Petryna, Adriana. “Remarks on World Health.” University of Pennsylvania. January 25, 2007.
Pinker, Steven and Elizabeth Spelke. “The Science of Gender and Science. Pinker Vs. Spelke. A Debate.” Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.Harvard University. April 22, 2005.
Summers, Larry. “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering
Workforce.” January 14, 2005.