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Women Say "Nay!" to Independence

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Women Say “Nay!” to Independence

by R. Malfi 

    What would you say if I told you that according to a 2001 article entitled “Academia – Graduate School and Beyond,” women earned 46% of Ph.D.s in biology and agricultural science, 23% in math, 22% in the physical sciences, 16% in computer science and 12% in engineering[1].  How would you account for fact that as the scientific discipline gets “harder,” the fewer women there are to be seen?  I can tell you what others have said.  Explanations for the notable absence of women from the sciences range from inherent differences in men and women that translate into differences in both capability and interest in science to accessibility issues, including the institutional structure, competitive working atmospheres, and the lack of amenities such as childcare. While these are all avenues worth exploration, the feminist critique of science raises another, more provocative issue. Perhaps the problem does not lie in access or ability to do the sciences, but in the science itself.  In this paper, I discuss why one of the major reasons women are absent from the “harder” sciences like physics and math may relate to gender differences and the nature of present scientific practice. 

The most fundamental scientific concept that feminist critiques take issue with is the notion of objectivity.  Karen Barad, a physicist and feminist critic, sums it up well: “The Newtonian worldview is compatible with an objectivist epistemology of the world… That is, what is ‘discovered’ is presumed to be unmarked by its ‘discoverer.’ The claim is that the scientist can read the universal equations of nature that are inscribed on G-d’s blackboard: Nature has spoken.”[2]  Essentially, objectivity presumes that we, as scientists, are passive observers of the world and that our measurements are a reflection of the predetermined nature of reality.  The feminist critique sees flaw in this belief that we have no agency in science, that we are not an active voice in the making of science.  In an effort to understand reality as it exists independently of us, the scientific community attempts to create technologies and methodologies which assist in the elimination of our own influence from our studies. But this is impossible, a feminist critic would say, because we are always a part of the system.  We are not passive observers, but we actively perceive the world and give it meaning. We influence what is considered common practice as well as the culture of science and how it is perceived by the public.  We determine, through our endeavors, what the world means to us.  In the pursuit of objectivity, the idea that we experience and make science has been lost.

As the notion of objectivity became embedded in the culture and practice of physics (and science in general), “[m]eaning, interpretation, and critical reflection were banished,” claims Barad.[3]  From her accounts and from those of other investigators, courses in physics focus predominantly on mathematical calculations, leaving little room for in depth discussion about the philosophy behind physics and what it means to do physics.  In one study conducted by Sheila Tobias, the majority of students involved in the process found that the “big picture” was never made all that clear[4].  Facility in mathematics was heavily pushed in the courses these students took, but marked omissions from the practicum were discussions of what it actually means to be a physicist and why we use physics.  Why are we engaging this subject?  What effect do we have on the world?  Karen Barad argues in her discourse on agential realism that “reality is sedimented out of the process of making the world intelligible through certain processes and not others.  Therefore, we are not only responsible for the knowledge that we seek, but, in part, for what exists.”[5]  She claims that we need to take responsibility for our science – our science is not separate from society.  The questions we pursue, the consequences of our work – these are things we must consider when doing science.  These are factors in the “big picture.”

It is here that I would like to introduce the idea that the lack of acknowledgement of our agency in science is in part responsible for deterring women from entrance into these disciplines.   As I stated earlier, the persistence of male dominance in the physical and mathematic sciences has provoked some interesting dialogue, including discussions regarding inherent qualities that may make women or men naturally more capable or interested in these fields.  Some have attempted to argue that men are inclined to have more facility with math and spatial problems than women.  Supporting evidence for this includes studies on SAT scores as well as behavioral and biological studies on gender preference and brain function.  The SAT evidence is generally the same across studies of gender difference.  Boys consistently score about ten points higher on the Math SAT than girls, indicating a higher aptitude in math and thus increased male participation in science.  However, “[a] U.S. Department of Education study showed that when math scores were the same, nearly twice as many men as women pursued physics.  It is not, then, only a lack of ability that is keeping women out of science, something else is producing the disparities in men’s and women’s participation in academic mathematics.”[6]  So what is it?

I would like to discuss one study in particular, cited by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in a debate on gender and science.  This study showed that baby girls tend to fixate on people’s faces, whereas baby boys tend to fixate on mobiles or “things.”  Since science is about “things” rather than people, the result of this experiment is taken to mean (by some) that boys, more than girls, will be interested in doing science.[7]  While I find Pinker’s overall argument somewhat reprehensible, I think he’s on to something here.  Perhaps women are more concerned with people than men. Interestingly, characteristics considered to be feminine include: nurturing, caring, empathetic, and emotional.  These all have to do with interpersonal relations and, frankly, being and feeling human.  The problem, then, is not that women are incapable of science, but that the practice of science lacks an outward value of society and humanity.  The scientist him/herself is even minimized as a presence in the quest to see the world from the “view from nowhere” – the ultimate objectivist perspective.

I find it interesting that women become less prevalent in scientific fields as these fields increase in “hardness.”  Again, this circumstance has often been seen as the effect of women’s aversion to math (either because of interest of capability).  I see it differently.  What I see is not a hierarchy of “hardness,” but a hierarchy of de-contextualization.  At the bottom of this hierarchy lies biology with nearly a nearly 50-50 ratio of men to women in the field.  Arguably, of all the sciences, biology recognizes humanity the most in its practice.  The very pursuits of biology often directly involve people.  Examples of this include medical studies, genetics research, and ecology.  Bioethics is also an extremely hot and popular subject which deals explicitly with understanding the potential or realized consequences of research endeavors in society.  Indeed, people are very much a part of the “big picture.”

As an ecologist, it took a lot for me to understand feminist discourse on science.  When I read accounts that described science as irresponsible and without recognition of agency, I felt offended.  I believe I felt this way because I already engage in a scientific practice that is deeply concerned with humanity and the consequences we endure as a result of our own actions.  While I cannot speak freely about all biological sciences, I can say with some confidence that ecologists are aware of their own agency in the creation of science.  In ecology we make both small and large measurements, and we are aware that our results depend very much on the methods we choose.  It is almost always acknowledged in ecological papers that there are limitations in the methods used and suggestions for improvements are often made. In my opinion, biology (and ecology especially) fits the mold of Barad’s agential realism above any of the other sciences.  It’s not a perfect fit, to be sure, but deeply embedded in biology is an understanding of humanity and even society (as seen in the cases of medicine and ecology to be specific).

Now, I realize that you, as the reader, may deem my point as contradictory.  You might say, well, that just reinforces why women aren’t in physics and math – women don’t like “things” and those sciences are more about “things.”  I disagree.  I think that physics could have a lot to do with people, too.  Agential scientific literacy, as proposed by Barad, encourages people to think about why they are pursuing a project, how it will affect society, and how interpretation is a creative process given significance through our experience as well as experimentation.  If physics education (and science education overall) fostered this kind of thinking, we might see more women in physics, math, and engineering.  No, we can’t make a particle or a wave anything but what they are – “things.”  But we can discuss the role of physics in the world, and we can begin to recognize our own role in the production of scientific knowledge. 

The feminist critic Margaret Wertheim wrote, “By not being more involved in developing and implementing… technologies, women concede what is in the end a vast realm of social power and responsibility.”[8] Her words are understandably urgent.  It is crucial that women find their way into the sciences so that they can have a part in deciding what science will ultimately be and how it will be used to change the world. It is important that we, in the scientific community, hold ourselves accountable for our pursuits and try to understand that we are part of the world we study, not independent of it.  It is also important that women increasingly work their way into the sciences so that instillation these humanocentric ideas in the commonly taught discourse, in turn, attracts more women to the fields of physics, math, and engineering.  Overcoming the circularity of this issue is, indeed, difficult, but the change must begin somewhere.  To any young reader that may be considering a career in science: read up on feminist theory.  Don’t crunch numbers mindlessly, wondering what the significance of your actions mean without ever asking.  If educators don’t ask you to relate what you are doing to the rest of the world, ask them.  Let the change start with you.  Be an independent thinker, but don’t think you’re independent of the world.  That’s my advice.

[1] Thom, Mary.  Part 3: Academia – Graduate School and Beyond.  Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? New York: National Council for Research on Women, 2001. pp. 67

[2] Barad, Karen. “A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics.” Teaching the Majority: Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Ed. Sue Rosser. New York: Teachers Coll. Press, 1995. pp. 46

[3] Ibid, pp. 64

[4] Tobias, Sheila.  They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Tuscon: Research Corporation. 1990.

[5] Barad, Karen.  “Scientific LiteracyàAgential Literacy = (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly.” Feminist Science Studies, ed. Mayberry et al., 2001.  pp. 236

[6] Schiebinger, Londa. “Physics and Math.” Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999. pp. 161

[7] The Science of Gender & Science: Pinker vs. Spelke, a Debate.  Edge: The Third Culture.  Harvard University: Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.  May 16th, 2005.

[8] Wertheim, Margaret.  Introduction.  “God, Women and the New Physics.” Pythagoras’ Trousers: God Physics, and the Gender Wars. New York, Random House, 1995, pp. 13