Athene Donald's Blog

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

Breakfast with Evelyn Fox Keller (Science and Gender Part II)

Posted by Athene Donald on October 31, 2010

The second half of the meeting in Austria on Science and Gender gave me a very different impression, both of the topic and the situation in Austria, than I had garnered from the first 24 hours described in my previous post.  Several points came out that were not initially evident, which could be summed up as

  • What is meant by science/ Wissenschaft?
  • What is meant by gender in this context?
  • What is the status quo for female academics in Austria, and what is the way ahead?

Clearly these are big, sweeping questions which I can only touch on here, and which it would be presumptuous of me to claim any sort of particular prescience about, but I will put down my impressions while they are fresh in my mind.

The first evening was taken up, as my previous post discussed, with a discussion specifically about women in science by two people from outside the Austrian system, indeed outside the Germanic tradition, namely Londa Shiebinger from Stanford and myself.  In retrospect it is interesting and significant that women from outside the Austrian (or even central European) umbrella were asked to speak and I will come back to this point.  The bulk of the second day was occupied with a selection of talks from within Austria covering psychology; the legal framework; neuroscience and biological differences; and stereotyping. All these talks were in German. I followed enough of the neuroscience talk to know that the lecturer was being very ambivalent about the biological differences obtained, verging on the ‘these are tasks women can’t do’, though stepping back from explicitly saying women’s brains made them unfit for science.  (To be fair to him, although his slides gave this impression, his answers in the ensuing discussion were much less disquieting.)  I cannot discuss the other talks because they were beyond me; various attendees have remarked how much they disliked the fact that non-German speakers were invited to present and then excluded from all the subsequent debates by virtue of language. Indeed I have been encouraged to write to the organisers spelling out the inappropriateness of this behaviour. I am not sure I am comfortable in doing this, as my inability to speak German adequately is my own failing and it smacks of cultural imperialism to object to a national society holding its meeting in its own tongue. Nevertheless, this is one manifestation of the anger felt by some attendees about the orchestration of this meeting.

The very last talk of the meeting, by Heidi Digglemann was given in English, in large part at her request so as to be able to be inclusive of Fox Keller and myself (Schiebinger had departed) as she gave an account of her personal life story and the crucial influences and staging posts in this.  Apparently this act of using English required what was described as a ‘palace revolution’ to allow this to be permitted. Very strange goings-on.

However, the evening debate on the second evening was in English involving Evelyn Fox Keller,   Christoph Kratky, since 2005 President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Hans Sünkel Rector of TU Graz, and Barbara Alving Director of the NIH’s National Center for Research and Resources.  Continuing with the linguistic theme, it was pointed out that although the English title for this meeting, and therefore the premise on which I for one constructed my own talk, was ‘Science and Gender’, in German the title was Wissenschaft und Gender. In this context, Wissenschaft should not be translated simply as Science, but much more broadly as Knowledge.  Now this has been drawn to my attention, I recollect a long discussion on this very point, coincidentally in In Defence of History coincidentally because this is the book I juxtaposed with Fox Keller’s Developmental Biology book a short while ago here . Indeed I now understand that the organising body, the Öesterreichische Forschungsgemeinschaft, is simply the Austrian Research Foundation and not itself tied to science. None of this was made plain to me in my letter of invitation, nor to the other external speakers I would surmise, based on the way they interpreted their brief.  It does explain why the audience contained philosophers, sociologists, economists etc.  I don’t think in some senses this disconnect mattered, and the material that was presented by the English speakers specifically around science seemed both well-received and to stimulate much debate, but nevertheless it was a disconnect – intended or otherwise.

So what did the Gender in the title mean?  I think many of us, myself included, had taken ‘gender’ to mean ‘women’, but of course that is formally quite incorrect, as the gender studies people pointed out. The evening debate was formally entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’ and was interpreted by the 4 speakers in rather different ways, in part because of different interpretations of ‘feminine’ and ‘gender’ in this context.  Fox Keller kicked things off by saying feminizing science should mean bringing more women in, not making it ‘touchy-feely’.  She pointed out that school education sometimes served the role of a technology ‘transforming boys and girls into “masculine” and “feminine”’.  And she particularly objected to remarks that had been made to her throughout her life along the lines of ‘you think like a man’, implying thought is gendered; telling women ‘how’ to think is, in her words, ‘offensive’.  Her desire was to

‘Free science from the shackles of gender.’

Next up was Dr Kratky who appeared to say essentially everything was fine, it was all a question of demographics and time since academic posts turned over slowly in the Austrian system and the number of women was creeping up so – nothing to worry about. Furthermore, he had heard various speakers say (and clearly I was included in this category) that some women lacked self-confidence, but he had seen no sign of it in the speakers so he wasn’t convinced that this was a problem. Indeed some men suffered from lack of self-confidence too. Yes, OK, I’ve said before I’m not usually taken as a shrinking violet, but his mode of expressing this was, to my mind, verging on the just plain rude.

Barbara Avling was by comparison very mild and factual, talking about steps the NIH had taken to support women, the need to take the long view and support people when they needed to step back for a period for personal reasons, and the importance of team science and training people to work (and lead) teams. She argued that the economics meant it was not sensible to invest substantially in training people and then not work to prevent attrition. Hans Sünkel was also rather mild, merely talking about the (rather minor) structures that TU Graz was introducing to try to increase the number of women full professors, and recognizing that numbers were slowly increasing, but that science was not necessarily seen as an attractive career choice – for men or women.

The chair, whose name I don’t recall but who was a woman from the Humanities, kept trying to bring the discussion back to ‘feminising’ science, but wasn’t making much headway with any of the panel. Fox Keller insisted that women will not change science, but that it will evolve, and that there isn’t simply a female way of doing things. The contributions from the floor all tended to go the same way, but also begin to hint at the feelings of frustration many of the women present felt. There was no doubt that many interpreted Kratky’s remarks – and recall that this is the guy at the top of the food chain controlling funding – as implying he believed that since there is no fundamental problem, nothing substantial needed to be done or would be done, and the message did not go down well.

Over the subsequent dinner I began to get a better appreciation of some of the underlying tensions, of which the argument over the language of the meeting was one.  The women I sat with clearly felt that Austria was intensely conservative, with hang-ups left over from Freud and the guilt implied if a mother did not devote herself to her children.  Furthermore, that the senior management of universities and funding agencies were doing no more than paying lip service to the problems many women felt they faced. I was told stories of university managers who would look the other way and do nothing when presented with explicit, written evidence of harassment of female staff; of a so-called law about gender equality that went no further than aspiration with no enforcement; of women who were not enabled/ actively hindered from getting full professorships but left in the limbo of lower level posts without clout. Of course these are things that the UK would have recognized ~20 years ago, but our community has moved whilst Austria  remains a rather hostile environment for women academics. Indeed one of the men I had spoken to earlier in the day said Austria was the most conservative of all the European countries on this front.

But let me return to Fox Keller, whom I had breakfast with on the last day. I had read her book ‘Reflections on Gender and Science’ several years ago, and had reacted very badly to it, interpreting it as hardcore Feminism with a capital F. I have read it again in the run-up to this meeting and wondered what it was that I disliked so much. Possibly it’s that my position has changed, but I actually think it is because I understand the book much better. Far from talking about a feminine way of doing science – which was how I interpreted it originally and which she indicated was a common misinterpretation – she wants a gender-free science. Although she believes she was the one who introduced the word gender into the context of science, it is exactly what she doesn’t want but fears is there. Unfortunately by introducing the word, she seems also to have introduced a hostage to fortune leading to many (my previous self included) to interpret her words as wanting there to be a female way of doing things.  She clearly believes the culture needs to change, to make it less what I would term macho (she called it masculine-esque) but absolutely not to go for simple PC-ness. Nor does she believe there is a female way of doing science, or that having more women will lead to a different type of science.  So, the example of Bernardine Healey cited by Barbara Avling, because she had overseen the introduction of an NIH policy requiring both men and women to be involved in clinical trials for conditions which might affect both, was seen by Fox Keller as an idea whose time had come rather than due to the explicit fact that Healy was a woman.

I have come away from this meeting rather perplexed. I came to give an overview of pragmatic actions I am associated with and familiar with from the UK. I am sure Londa Schiebinger likewise came simply to talk about her ongoing work. Instead I find we were pitched into a political arena where we were being used as external pawns, in the nicest possible way, in an ongoing situation – possibly akin to a war – between conservatives and more progressive academics. A situation where everything including our style, our language and our science was potentially ammunition for one side or the other; we had been given no hint of this backdrop when invited. I am perhaps wiser as a result, but not necessarily happier.

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