Where Science Meets Feminism

March/April 2005

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Where Science Meets Feminism

Linda A. Cicero

Harvard president Lawrence Summers caused a nationwide ruckus when he remarked at an academic conference that innate biological factors may help explain why fewer women succeed at the highest levels of math and science. Londa Schiebinger, director of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), says she is “disappointed and saddened that a leader at a major university is holding these views. We felt we had won this battle.”

She ought to know.

Schiebinger, a leading scholar on gender and the history of science, wrote her doctoral dissertation at Harvard on women, gender and the scientific revolution. She has been a force in moving the debate away from whether women are good at math and science and toward transforming institutions and removing barriers to entry and success.

Now, Schiebinger is bringing her expertise to bear on IRWG. She joined Stanford in spring 2004 as its director and as professor of history. The 31-year-old institute “has drifted a bit to the side” of the University, Schiebinger observes. “It needs to plug back into the intellectual core of Stanford.” She is helping raise $10 million to support the institute, including funds for research fellowships.

The first two or three fellows, who will arrive in the fall, will study aspects of gender and science. “In light of the Harvard president’s recent remarks, we clearly need more scientific investigation of how gender impacts scientific thinking, from choice of topic to hypothesis proposal to modes of collecting data,” says Virginia Walbot, a biological sciences professor and member of IRWG’s faculty advisory board.

“The question we seek to answer is, how would knowledge change if you included gender analytics in your design?” Schiebinger says. This topic also will be explored on April 15 and 16 during an IRWG conference titled “Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering.”

“Since its inception, the institute has been a place of scholarship,” explains founding director Myra Strober, a professor of education. “It stays vital because each new director takes it in the direction of her own expertise.”

Schiebinger has examined gender in both the substance and the culture of science. Her 1999 book, Has Feminism Changed Science?, cites many examples of how thinking in various scientific fields has shifted: The FDA requires that drugs be tested in women as well as men. Primatology changed its focus from the alpha male to the whole of primate life. “Lucy,” a 3.2 million-year-old fossil hominid, may in fact be “Linus.” She holds up a picture of a Volvo designed by a team of women, pointing out that the seat belts accommodate pregnant bellies.

On the cultural side, Schiebinger is concerned that female scientists miss out on opportunities because they have less job mobility, especially if they are part of a two-career academic couple. “This problem has an acute impact on women: 43 percent of married female physicists are married to other physicists, whereas only 6 percent of male physicists are married to other physicists.”

Schiebinger acknowledges that some confusion can accompany a massive cultural shift such as the redefining of gender roles, but views it positively. “We’re in a period of creative ferment,” she says. “Gender roles are more flexible and people are freer to explore the type of gender identity they want to adopt. It’s an exciting time for both men and women.”

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