Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Discussing Science and Gender

Posted by Athene Donald on October 29, 2010

I am currently at a meeting in a very attractive location (including snow) in Austria on Science and Gender, organised by the Österreichischen Forschungsgemeinschaft.  The meeting overall intends to discuss the topic in a very broad sense, with the participants coming from across the academic spectrum.  This obviously includes the full range of sciences as well as gender studies, but also less obvious disciplines including economics, languages and linguistics. I don’t think I had anticipated this when preparing my own talk.  Unfortunately my language skills are not advanced enough to appreciate some of the talks and topics – 40 year old O Level German just isn’t enough to appreciate the nuances of this field – but the first talk was rather easier: Londa Schiebinger from Stanford, giving an international perspective on the issues.  Her talk immediately preceded mine, and we covered some of the same topics, though with a rather different emphasis.

Londa’s background is in English and History, but for many years she has looked at both the historical and the current situation of women in science. Her talk identified three levels of analysis:

1.       Participation: ‘fix the (number of) women’;

2.       Gender in the Culture: ‘fix the institution’;

3.       Gender in Knowledge: ‘fix the knowledge’.

She discussed point 1 by discussing what happens when you, for instance, teach women how to negotiate for better salaries – a particular issue in the US where it seems all salaries are done by negotiation. When such training was carried out at her own institution, it transpired the administrators with whom the negotiations were done simply didn’t respond to the women in the same way as they would to men coming into their offices asking for a pay rise. Consequently the effect was less than had been hoped, and probably just added to a sense of alienation for the women faculty concerned.  My own thoughts on ‘fixing the women’ were discussed here.  The implied deficit model assumes it is the woman who are lacking something, rather than that it is the culture that is at fault. In the case of the salary negotiations, therefore, giving the women the confidence and skills to negotiate failed because the culture – in this case within the management – was not adapted to deal with this change.

Her discussion of ‘fixing the institution’ was where there was the greatest overlap with my own talk, and I’ll discuss this further below. But it was the third topic I found most interesting, because I was least familiar with it. Her point here was that much of knowledge –most, though not all of her examples derived from the field of biomedical research – is done in a gendered way, producing results which may not be equally applicable to both sexes. (Perhaps I should try to spell out the differences between sex and gender as I understood it from the discussion: sex is about biology, whereas gender relates to sociocultural attributes.)

To take a specific example, in fact from engineering practice, that of crash dummies i.e. those objects used to test the consequences of crash impacts on the body. The first such dummies used were in studies in the US (ca 1949) by the military to study the effect of ejection from ejector seats from planes on the human body. The model built was that of a rather tall male.  These studies were subsequently adapted to study the optimisation of seat belts in high speed car crashes. There have been modifications to the dummies, but it is only very recently that Volvo, if I recall correctly (in other words, in Scandinavia, which I think is telling in itself) have started to study the effect of seatbelt design on pregnant women, using computer simulations.  This despite the fact that foetuses are known to be damaged by the pressure induced by the standard 3 point seatbelt.  This is a clear example of a case where the standard ‘male’ model is assumed to cover all situations (although I presume there have been separate studies on children of different ages and sizes; this wasn’t mentioned), and that simply isn’t adequate.  Despite the obvious shortcomings, US law isn’t requiring any changes until 2011 to ensure the safety of pregnant women is factored in to safety design.  Another obvious example, that is probably more familiar to readers, is the case of symptoms associated with incipient heart attacks in men and women. These present differently. Since doctors are not always trained to recognize these differences, and alert to the variety in symptoms and the location of where pain is felt, many people are not given the appropriate treatment in time.  Response to drugs may also be different, which has significant implications for drug trial design.  All these sorts of effects Londa referred to as requiring ‘gendered innovation’ and this has become a major theme of her team at Stanford,

For my own talk I was originally given a title of  ‘Science and Gender in Academia – a Reflection of Society’, but I felt completely ill-qualified to discuss this and chose to concentrate not on the social or sociological but on the practical and pragmatic steps I am familiar with both locally, through WiSETI, and nationally through the Athena Forum.  However I began with setting this work in the context of the so-called leaky pipeline, and this was where there was most overlap with Londa’s talk.  Issues such as unconscious bias and stereotyping – as manifest in how people (male and female) evaluate CV’s, write reference letters, or judge people at interview –  are so prevalent within our culture we are going to have to work incredibly hard to overcome this. I said that I would like to see senior managers to take some of Project Implicit’s tests – I have mentioned this Project before here – so that they are at least aware of the baggage they, and all of us, carry into the selection of candidates for instance.  We also need to consider the obstacles female scientists may face due to their low numbers, such as isolation, lack of mentors and lack of role models.  However, rather than rehearse the whole of my talk I attach as a separate page a first draft of the paper that will be submitted to the proceedings of this meeting (and the accompanying powerpoint presentation).  This manuscript will be updated in the light of the discussions over the next 24 hours, so should not be considered as the finished article.

I am particularly looking forward to the panel discussion tonight, which will feature Evelyn Fox Keller in (I presume) her role as author of Reflections on Gender and Science, rather than as the mathematical biologist and author of Making Sense of Life I discussed in my last post.  The Discussion is entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’. Should be interesting!


2 Responses to “Discussing Science and Gender”

  1. Great post – thanks.

    Londa Schiebinger’s 1999 book ‘Has Feminism Changed Science?’ is a really clear overview of key ideas and movements in this area. I keep meaning to read her one on Agnotology.

    • Yes it’s one I’ve added to my Amazon wishlist, after talking to her last night. She obviously started in this field with a historical perspective, but the work she was describing here is very much in the present.

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