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Frame the issues and describe some responses to the ways in which women scientists are made….


            Bryn Mawr College, among other women’s institutes, suffers from one of the greatest symptoms of the struggle between women’s oppression and the fight to overcome it. While it fights to distinguish itself as an academic community that not only provides but, also, encourages a thorough, non-gendered education through the removal of men and the empowerment of the students and teachers, it also seeks to project itself by assuming a neutral role in gender labeling. Herein lies the question; do we abstain from portraying ourselves as providing something seemingly unusual and “extra” for women so that we may then make social changes and neutralize the role of gender differences in society? Or do we take pride in the fact that we are a single sex institution and distinguish ourselves as a community that helps women flourish and help them own who they are, thereby running the chance emphasizing the difference between men and women? Grosz encourages us to accept who we are as women, as individual entities in this world, and to embrace it and utilize it. But through these efforts to become scientists, through all that we deem necessary to accomplish that which we strive for, do we further isolate ourselves?

            Through reading countless life stories of famous women scientists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, chemists, etc., it is clear that they too have suffered from the oppression we are focusing on. And while their path into science may have, for some, been motivated by the women’s movement, as well as their passion for science, their actual fight into the world of science has been played out on a personal level. In the case of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, her achievements were only made possible by the special encouragement that she received from the scientific community and, as well, her parents. Growing up in Belfast she was hit very hard by the education system, not being allowed to continue on in the public system she had to resort to irregular, perhaps more expensive methods of receiving her education. However, this did not deter her. The involvement of the Arnagh Observatory staff, which apparently she had a relationship with, was a great driving force in her introduction and connection to the world of science. Is this what is required for a woman to surpass all societal obstacles in order to be a part of the professional world of science? Or does she, this illusive “woman”, have to, in an extreme attempt at fighting this, relinquish any and all non-professional advantages that a woman has and assume a seemingly non-gendered, or some might say masculine, mentality?

            In one of the articles we read for class, I came across the statistic that read that most women report themselves as being average in their professional competency, whereas more men reported themselves as being above average (Sonnert and Holton, p. 67). In this we see that women, whether it be because of the general discrimination they have felt as being a part of the scientific or larger community or because of a mentality they have assumed in comparing themselves to not each other but men, have obtained a sense of inferiority. Though this study does not pinpoint if this self-portrayal of being “average” is in response to a certain environment, I would hypothesize that this complex came about due to just such an oppressive community. How then do women surpass these obstacles? Such a mentality is sure to be pervasive and contagious, is it humbleness, fear or doubt?

            Another statistic from the Sonnet and Holton article illustrated that female science students who have female advisors are more likely to abandon the field and any plans for postdoctoral work than those female students who have male advisors (1996, p. 67). This statistic emphasizes the need for individual and personal attention to women entering this competitive field but does it say that this attention should be from men instead of women, or is it just that female students should be provided with exposure to both male and female advisors so as to have the most well-rounded wealth of knowledge. One must assume that this occurs because having a relationship to a female advisor gives you the opportunity to become much closer with a woman who works in the field. You can therefore observe the struggles and the compromises that must be made that are part of assumed to be a natural part of becoming a scientist, those compromises being ones that women are more inclined to make than men (Thom).

            Does one have to compromise their goals to be a mother, or family maker in order to become a scientist? Or do women simply have to embrace all that they are, their interests, qualities and abilities as thinkers, mothers, teachers, researchers and wives? These physical differences between women and men have caused society to deem men and women as having different minds, different emotional and mental advantages and limits. Grosz states in her article about feminist epistemologies that in the greater society men and masculinity are associated with the mind, whereas women and femininity are associated with the body. Society has brainwashed a great deal of the female community into thinking that because of these anatomical differences that women are somehow constructed differently than men such that some fields are better for one gender than the other. Science and Math are considered to be better suited for men than women. Sheila Tobias discusses her experiences talking with postgraduates about science in her article “They’re not dumb, they’re different”. Although she found that these students never took to science because their high school experience soured them, Tobias found that most of them performed extremely well in their classes, and hypothesized that perhaps these students did not pursue science because they felt that they were “different” from men and therefore were not “made for” science. The question Tobias begs is how then can the science community reach out to these students and have a positive influence on them such that they might rethink abandoning the field? I am reminded of Jocelyn Bell Burnell again who, in interviews, explained that much of her motivation to enter the world of science was due to the fact that of her teachers, her science teachers were among the most encouraging and enthusiastic. This had a very powerful and positive effect on the path that she chose. How then can we take this and generalize it such that it is not so rare to find a woman motivated and empowered by her superiors?

            Through the case studies that Tobias uses in her analysis of the second tier it becomes clear that the very narrow and dry focus of science is perhaps what is deterring many of the future science students. The lack of community, creativity and interdisciplinary considerations in scientific education leads many to feel it difficult to participate and to understand, especially those who although interested in science are more inclined to discuss concepts, rather than formulate mathematical equations and either get them wrong or right. One of the case studies mentioned that the student felt a better, more well rounded method of teaching would help students in that it would encourage different ways of thinking. Perhaps science’s rejection of multiple ways of thinking is one of the core issues. If science were more “conducive” to all types of people then it would welcome not only different perspectives but different thinkers too, which would, in fact, be very beneficial for science. The more thinkers you have, and the more accepting you are of what those thinkers provide, female or male, the more questions are asked and the more thorough an answer science will receive. If, then, science presents itself as being more flexible and open, then it will not be perceived as daunting and intimidating as people, and women in particular, have reported it as being.