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Pemwrez2009's picture

Dear Dr. Drew Faust,


            My name is Alex and I am a Bryn Mawr College undergrad. I am currently enrolled in a course called Gender and Science. I wanted to write to you in a broad sense, and talk about the relationship between the scientific world and the gendered world, but more specifically, what it means to be a "woman scientist". Even more importantly, we recognize that there is an inconsistency or inequality among the ration of men to women in the laboratory. In order to analyze this discrepancy I think it is important to analyze what prevents women scientists from being made, rather than how these women scientists are made.

            When we think about the sciences, I assume that the first thing that comes to mind (at least with many people) are what we would call "the hard sciences", chemistry, physics, rocket science, etc. When we think of sociology, political science, and anthropology we think about writing and reading, little investigation (if any), and probably even less experimentation. These are the "interdisciplinary social sciences", or, quite frankly, not sciences at all (to many). This is something that fascinates me! What is it about science, with all of its emphasis on finding a truth and making discoveries, which allows it to be simultaneously one of the most intangible disciplines out there?

            Math and the hard sciences seem to have always had this reputation for being the father or superior to all other disciplines. Even worse, the crowd that has primarily occupied these positions as “scientists,” are groups of intellectually and mathematically elite males. For a woman to enter this sphere, she must prove herself to be, not only worthy of the position, but she must be more attractive than any other male candidate.

            Like many gender-related classes, we have discussed the stereotypes of both femininity and masculinity. It is widely acknowledged that women have been stereotyped as the weaker or less intellectual gender/sex. In my opinion, these stereotypes are fully responsible for limiting the opportunities for women in all areas of society and especially in her ability to become a scientist. However, stereotypes for women have not played the only role in limiting these possibilities. In stereotyping what it is to be masculine, one would probably think of adjectives like: practical, detached, uninvolved, and egotistical. Because science has become this territory of what seem to be inescapable stereotypes, it becomes even harder for women to penetrate its thick membrane. For example, many women, at least, many of the women I know who are involved in the social sciences even the lab sciences do not consider themselves to be scientists. It seems evident to me, that in order for a woman to consider herself as a scientist, whether it is a lab science, or a social science, she must break-free of the stereotypes which seem to protect science as being a masculine discipline and at the same time, claim herself as being a scientist, without any necessity for a mention of the feminine or the masculine.

            In class, we read an article by Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton called Career Patterns of Women and Men in the Sciences. This article addresses the question of why there is such a disparity between women and men in scientific professional fields especially since discrimination against women in the sciences has been illegal for many years now. In this article the authors explore this idea of “discourse of deficit” versus “discourse of difference”. Both Sonnert and Holton explain the deficit model as,

“…based on structural explanations of scientific careers. It posits the existence of mechanisms of formal and informal exclusion of women scientists. Women as a group, according to this model receive fewer chances and opportunities along their career paths, and for this reason they collectively have worse career outcomes.”[1]



Both authors address this notion that unequal opportunity exists for women and this is a leading reason for the hardship that women have experienced in becoming a part of the scientific world. Furthermore, the deficit model is much more oriented towards the structural obstacles that prevented women from achieving the same privilege as men in the same fields. The difference model, on the other hand is quite different.


“The difference model, on the other hand, posits the existence of deeply ingrained differences in behavior, outlook and goals between women and men. In this model the root cause of gender disparities in career achievement is internal to the individual. It is said to lie in gender differences—be they innate, or the result of gender role socialization or cultural patterns. To a significant degree, the argument goes, these differences shape the behavior of individuals as well as the character of social institutions.”[2] 



The discourse of difference model seems to indicate this silenced prejudice that may or may not be biologically-related, though nevertheless, it has shaped us as individuals and the institutions with which we are involved. Both of these models are extremely helpful in explaining the societal constructs of what may be preventing the shrinking of this gendered disparity. However, what may be problematic is the notion that if we were to institute some sort of equal playing-field program, or some sort of affirmative action to increase the number of women in science labs, this could potentially result in a backlash. For example, if so much of the stigma involving women in male-dominated fields has to do with stereotypes surrounding these women, wouldn’t specialized attention to women only perpetuate these stereotypes? It seems that there could be a real danger in expressing that a woman may “need help” getting the career that she wants!

One other phenomenon that seems to be occurring very often is this trend of women who are well on their way to their ideal career and somewhere along the line, they begin to sacrifice these career goals for their families and other goals or interests. Maybe this is the result of the inability of the education methods in American high schools and middle schools, but, for one reason or another it seems that women are giving up on themselves, or giving up on each other. In the article They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different, by Sheila Tobias, she comments on the nature of schooling and the teaching of science. She explains that competition and/or notions of inferiority are not contributors to this trend.

“Some students don’t decide to reject science per se. They reject the culture of competition that they see as an unavoidable aspect of undergraduate science study. These students don’t drop science because they fail in the competition. Often they do very well. Rather for them issues of ‘culture,’ in the sense used above, are as important as the actual subject matter of their studies. They value such qualities as love for one’s subject and intrinsic motivation in ones work, and want these qualities to be part of their academic efforts.”[3]


According to Tobias, it seems that the issues involving female students studying to be scientific workers, has nothing to do with social constructs of science institutions, nor does it pertain to any sort of inferiority. It has to do with a perception of what it is to be in an institutionalize scientific environment. Many of the female students that Tobias was examining were just as strong as the male students, nevertheless, these female students were leaving this field because, science does not lend itself to being a warm and passion-driven discipline. Earlier in her article, she talks a lot about the hierarchical nature of science and how that contributes to the cold nature of the science world.

I guess I would have to agree with both articles. Sonnert and Holton must be on to something. It is more than evident, just looking at the attitudes of many scientists in how they handle working along side female scientists. The major down fall, is the idea that these disparities are here because society seems to have allowed for this kind of development. Becoming a female scientist means to overcome not only societal issues, but to prove one’s ability. Furthermore, issues of feeling unwelcome in the field need to be remedied either by changing the field or finding some way to incorporate the same passion in experimentation, as there is when someone is writing their own novel! What do you have to say, Dr. Faust?



[1] Sonnert & Holton, Pg. 63

[2] Sonnert & Holton, Pg. 63

[3] Tobias, Pg. 74