Joy of Science Week 1 Reading Summaries

Welcome to the first day of our course on “Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science”. This post will be a presentation of the summaries for each of this week’s assigned readings. If you were not able to do the readings or couldn’t get access to the books, I hope this post will give you a good flavor of what the week’s readings were all about.

You can reference the course syllabus for more details about the readings in the whole course and the course structure. Here’s the initial post about the course. And here are some guidelines about how I’ll post on readings and what we should strive for in commenting.
In this post, I just present the summaries. A following post will offer more discussion of the readings in relation to one another and/or to other material of my choosing. You are invited to comment, as usual, on either post.
This week, all the readings except one are from one book:
The Gender and Science Reader, (2001). Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., (Eds.), London and New York: Routledge.
The whole of Section One from this book is included. The other reading is
Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (2006). Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Let’s get started!

Women (Still) Need Not Apply

Margaret A. Eisenhart and Elizabeth Finkel

One sentence summary

The liberal critique of science and standard recommendations for compensatory strategies are unlikely to have the desired effect of increasing the number of women and minorities in science because they seek to attract individuals to a practice that does not reflect the interests and concerns of those individuals.

Boys and men, especially white males, already have access to a range of scientific experiences that most can or do experience as pleasurable. Attempts to draw more women, and men of color, into science by providing them access to these existing experiences are likely to fail. This is because science as it is currently taught and practiced does not reflect the interests and concerns of these out-group members. The nature of scientific practice and education must be changed, or at least opened up, to allow for a range of experiences and types of engagement that can be experienced as pleasurable by many different types of people. Women in engineering programs, and other kinds of compensatory strategies, cannot provide this kind of change; these efforts are aimed at getting women to measure up to existing group standards. Attracting and retaining more women or minorities cannot be achieved unless we question the nature of science itself – how it is shaped by who practices it, and the experiences and perspectives they bring to it. Evelyn Fox Keller’s work offers one example of the kinds of questions we should be asking.

A Six-Year Longitudinal Study of Undergraduate Women in Engineering and Science

Suzanne G. Brainard and Linda Carlin

One sentence summary

Increased retention of high-ability women in engineering can be achieved via WIE programs and other efforts that focus on maintaining interest, involvement, self-confidence, and commitment to major.

Ability plays no role in women’s decision to persist in or switch from engineering. Self-confidence levels decrease from initial high levels, and never completely recover. Most attrition takes place in the sophomore year. Persistence barriers include: loss of interest, intimidation, lack of self-confidence, poor advising, and not being accepted into department. Overall, retention levels were higher than the national average (72% vs. 60%) and the presence of the WIE program had a positive effect, even for women who never participate in its programs. Maintaining interest, involvement, self-confidence, and commitment to major are key for retention. Some departments have moved engineering classes into the critical sophomore year to attempt to increase engagement and interest, and thus retention. The authors state that the success of WIE programs nationwide shows that, given support, women can survive in a traditionally male-dominated field. The implication is that no essential changes to engineering itself are necessary. Compensatory strategies can help achieve equity in engineering by helping women maintain their interest in engineering-as-it-is.

NSF Employment Study Confirms Issues Facing Women, Minorities

Edward R. Silverman

One sentence summary

About 10% of the salary gap between women and men PhD researchers is unexplainable and may be due to unequal pay for equal work.

This summary of select data from the 1996 NSF “Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering” report discusses a salary gap between women and male PhD researchers. About 10% ($1400) of the gap was unexplainable, and the report suggests that some or all of this may be due to unequal pay for equal work. Another 10% was due to “life choices”. Employers can pay low wages to fill jobs perceived to have high non-salary rewards. The author suggests women are more likely than men to value these non-salary rewards (which are generally not part of doing science itself – things like shorter work weeks). The result is that more women end up in low-paying jobs. A corresponding (but unspoken) implication is that men are overwhelmingly motivated by the rewards of science and money. A similar salary gap exists for underrepresented minorities, but the data were not broken out by gender and race. Thus it was not clear whether minority women fared similarly to white women, or similarly to minority men. Systemic, ingrained societal problems and lack of role models were blamed for ongoing difficulties in recruiting minorities into science and engineering. Overall, the data painted a discouraging picture.

Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review

Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold

One sentence summary

Female Swedish MRC postdoctoral fellowship applicants had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same score from the review panel.

The authors studied data on applicants for Swedish MRC postdoctoral fellowships. Peer reviewers ranked women especially low in scientific competence, often judged as number of publications. The hypothesis was that women scored lower because they were less productive of publications. Scientific productivity of each applicant was measured in six different ways; regression analysis showed that number of first author citations, total impact factor (added impact factors of each journal in which applicant’s papers were published), and first-author impact factor significantly influenced the peer-reviewer ratings. For a woman to receive the same score as a man, she had to have an additional 64 impact points, which translates to three extra papers in Science or Nature, or 20 extra papers in a specialist journal with impact factor of 3. In other words, she had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male to get the same score as that male. The authors suggest that, as Sweden has a reputation as a leading country for gender equity, these results cast doubt on the entire peer review process in science. If gender discrimination operates on this scale elsewhere, it can account for the absence of women at higher levels in science.

Science and Science Criticism

Ruth Hubbard

One sentence summary

Hubbard describes her transition from “devout” but unquestioning scientist to feminist scientist who believes that feminism can improve science by making explicit and questioning its implicit assumptions.

Hubbard was a traditional, “devout” biologist; the Vietnam war and the women’s movement led her to question her assumption that “probing nature…was an unquestionable good”. In particular she questioned work on women’s biology, sociobiology, and other biological determinist work that supported patriarchal assumptions about men’s and women’s traditional gender roles. She notes that in science, unlike art or history or literature, the turn to feminism seems to lead scientists away from science and to social studies of science and scientific critique. Reasons are: the scientific definition of objectivity makes the operation of politics in scientific explanations invisible (so that critique is necessary); and doing science requires institutional support – one can’t be a scientist in a radical new way on one’s own, the way one can be a poet or artist on one’s own. Coming to feminist consciousness in science therefore risks some loss of the simple, unadulterated pleasure of doing of science – that “devout” relationship. It’s replaced by a more complex understanding of science as creation of stories and images about nature, transmitted through language. Feminism, through questioning assumptions, can help make sure the stories are more “true”, more reflective of other people’s experiences.

How I Came To This Study

Bonnie Spanier

One sentence summary

The pleasures of doing science are considerable for Bonnie Spanier, but the questions raised by the condition of women within science turned her from the practice of science to the study of science itself.

Bonnie Spanier “fell in love” with science at a young age, and the throughout her life has taken pleasure in understanding the world from the cellular point of view. Her privileged education let her experience the insider’s life in prestigious laboratories. At the time she landed her first major research grants, she also won a Bunting Institute grant to interview women scientists about their work. She was motivated by her curiosity as to why her outstanding undergraduate mentor had spent all her career at a small women’s college. The BI grant was a turning point, and the beginning of her feminist education. Eventually she left laboratory research and science teaching to concentrate on increasing public access to science, pursuing the answer to that question about her mentor, and lastly, to follow ” a complex desire to expand [her] skills, creative scope, and knowledge beyond the science to which [she] was trained and from which [she] had received ample rewards.” Feminist critique of science led her away from the active practice of science but promised intellectual pleasures that science alone could not provide. Looking now at molecular biology through the lens of feminism, everything was changed.

From Working Scientist to Feminist Critic

Evelyn Fox Keller

One sentence summary

Scientists are trained to understand and see force as a physical action and thus are likely to miss or discount the mental force that beliefs can have on science itself, through the actions of men and women who hold them.

Evelyn Fox Keller originally believed that science provided access to the “truth” about the world. She began to research the fate of women in science, during a leave when she was not doing research and was depressed about her work despite the success her colleague was reporting on their joint project. Was there a misfit between women and science? It seemed dishonest to pretend being a woman was irrelevant. She finally said in a public lecture that a major barrier to women in science was “the pervasive belief in the intrinsic masculinity of scientific thought”. The lecture presented her two major shifts in thought: reframing of the question as not one of male and female nature, but of beliefs about male and female nature, and “[admitting] the possibility that such beliefs could affect science itself.” Keller argues that beliefs have force, at least through the actions of men and women who hold them. Science is not a simple reflection of nature. When feminists talk about the associations between science, objectivity, and masculinity, they are making “a statement about the social rather than the natural (or biological) world”. That is, science is not essentially masculine, but socially constructed to be so.

Beyond Bias and Barriers

Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

One sentence summary

I’m cheating on this one – I’m quoting from the report. But they said it so well!
“It is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women.”

What’s holding women back? It’s not their brains and it’s not the simply the pipeline, though we do lose women at every step of the way. Women scientists will likely face discrimination; the specific nature of the barriers can vary from field to field. Men and women alike have implicit biases that disadvantage women in evaluation and hiring; scientists are no more objective than other humans. Arbitrary and subjective evaluation criteria also advantage men and disadvantage women, while organizational structures and expectations in academe still assume everyone has a “wife” at home. Evidence debunking eleven commonly held beliefs about women in science is collected in the report. For example, one myth is that women are more interested in family than careers. The reality is that women’s passion for science makes them persist in spite of barriers, and conflicts between roles as parents and as scientists and engineers. “Substantial and overarching reform” requires the efforts of university trustees, presidents, and provosts; deans, department chairs and tenured faculty; professional societies and higher education organizations; federal funding agencies and foundations; federal agencies, and Congress. Specific recommendations for each group are offered in the report.

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