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Joy of Science Week 2 Reading Summaries

Welcome to the Week 2 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 are from one book:
Building Inclusive Science: Connecting Women’s Studies and Women in Science and Engineering special issue, Women’s Studies Quarterly (28:1-2)
There are five readings. Let’s get started!

Reaching For Success In Science: Women’s Uneven Journey

Paula M. Rayman and Julie Pearson Stewart

One sentence summary

Multiple interventions across a broad spectrum, at the individual and institutional level, are needed to make science more humane and ensure lasting change for women in science.

Rayman & Stewart use Kristeva’s 3-tiered process of feminist struggle to describe the path of women in science: the push for equal access; extolling the virtues and strengths of women; and challenging notions of identity and how science is done. They note, however, that this seemingly linear progression is not a true picture, for attention to history shows that progress is not inevitable – or at least not enduring. For example, in the early 20th century, women received 14% of the doctorates in physical and biological sciences. Percentages declined dramatically by the 1950s and did not begin to recover till the 1970s with the civil rights and women’s rights movements. The problem is more complex than access alone; “access is not equality”. Rayman & Stewart characterize the problem as a “web of educational, institutional, and personal issues”. It takes individual and institutional support to create strong women who can themselves create institutional change in science and engineering. There are no single or simple answers; multiple types of interventions are needed. This does not mean special science classes for women, but making science itself more humane.

Feminism Where Men Predominate: The History of Women’s Science and Engineering Education at MIT

Amy Sue Bix

One sentence summary

Over a century of struggle and activism at MIT has altered the landscape for women in science and engineering.

Bix offers a swift survey of 130 years of women’s concerted and organized struggle to study and work at MIT. Some of the quotes are painful to read, and one is struck over and over by the obstacles women had to overcome: the quotas set to limit their admission; the institutional unwillingness to officially acknowledge their presence; the taunts and harassment of male students and faculty; required lab experiments turned into male bacchanalias; the pressure to prove that they were still “normal” women. Why would they go through all this? For “…the ‘pleasures of holding my own’ in class and discovering that ‘I am not “second rate” and incompetent as claimed by my father for so many years.’ ” Feminist activists in the 1970s developed support structures for women students and advocates organized conferences to address societal issues turning girls away from science and engineering. In 1994, three senior professors began a process of sharing information that ultimately led to the infamous MIT report which showed female science faculty had been treated unequally to their male colleagues. In 1999, the percentage of women on the Science faculty passed 10% for the first time.

Organizational Environments and Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Women in Science and Engineering

Mary Frank Fox

One sentence summary

The organizational environment of departments high or improved in percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women differs from that of low departments, but all share a central, “privatized” advisor-advisee relationship supported by the system of research funding that constrains possibilities for institutional change.

Graduate education in American universities is decentralized, and departments have authority to select, train, and certify graduate students. There is further decentralization into individual laboratories. Fox studied 61 departments of chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, and physics. Departments that were high or improved in percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women had distinct features. (1) Past or ongoing leadership on gender issues, particularly harassment (harassment and discrimination incidents were reported in all types of departments but faculty in low departments discounted these reports). (2) Greater consideration of what constitutes a good environment, with the belief that women need an enhanced but not qualitatively different environment than men. (3) Greater likelihood to have written guidelines for graduate study. But in all departments, criteria for sufficient work for the PhD were highly decentralized, essentially left to the advisor – even in departments where a history of strong leadership on gender issues was found. Faculty have their “own” students and graduate education is “privatized”. The system of funding research supports “privatization” and makes it unlikely that university leaders will support challenges to decentralization, even if these changes would benefit students. Faculty therefore have to be made more accountable for the outcomes of women students.

Revisiting the Gender, Marriage, and Parenthood Puzzle in Scientific Careers

Linda Grant, Ivy Kennelly, and Kathryn B. Ward

One sentence summary

Women scientists deploy a range of strategies and expend enormous effort to negotiate between two greedy institutions, family and academic science, usually articulating family around the more rigid demands of the scientific career.

Grant, Kennelly, and Ward posit the idea of academic science careers as a “greedy institution” that requires participants to give total commitment and to give up any competing commitments, and that has a normative and time-specific set of benchmarks. Participants voluntarily submit to the control of this “greedy institution” for the rewards of belonging, success, and even forming self-identity based on participation. In our culture, the family is also a greedy institution for women. Married women scientists with or without children must negotiate between the two greedy institutions. Though studies repeatedly show married women publish just as much as single women, this obscures the sacrifices married women/mothers make to maintain careers and negotiate personal life. Most women interviewed felt personal life had to be fitted around the demands of science, and saw little option for cutting back on or restructuring the type of scientific work they did. Reliance on continuous funding makes part-time work or time off difficult or impossible. None of the men interviewed felt the family/work conflict to the extent the women did, and none believed they had primary domestic responsibility or thought they had a responsibility to aid women in science in general.

Women in Chemistry and Physics: Questions of Similarity and Difference

Sylvia Benckert and Else-Marie Staberg

One sentence summary

To create change, we must use the arguments of similarity and difference together; similarity to demand equity, difference to formulate visions for action.

Women do not want to be singled out for special treatment as women, and they don’t want to be discriminated against as women. In this conversation, male is normative. We rarely ask, Are men similar to or different from women? Woman is always seen as the Other. If we say we are the same and do not want preferential treatment, then the system doesn’t change. If we call attention to differences e.g. women’s greater family responsibilities or the masculine culture of science then we risk marginalization. In the academic world, the official position is similarity: women and men are equal. But in fact they are not viewed the same, and consequently are not treated the same (recall the Swedish study on fellowship applications). The Tham professorships in Sweden are meant to rectify past discrimination against women but women have complex reactions to them. People protested this “preferential treatment” and predicted competence would be sacrificed to gender. The long history of preferential hiring of men remained invisible in the normative masculine discourse. It remains to be seen whether Tham professors can be positive “disturbing elements in the prevailing order”.

  1. March 2, 2007 at 12:48 am

    As usual, my support for feminism is predicated on selfish motives!

    academic science careers [are] a “greedy institution” that requires participants to give total commitment and to give up any competing commitments, and that has a normative and time-specific set of benchmarks. Participants voluntarily submit to the control of this “greedy institution” for the rewards of belonging, success, and even forming self-identity based on participation.

    That is very true, and very damaging — to men, as well as women. The damage falls disproportionately on women, but men stand to benefit directly if feminism can rein in the greed of the science infrastructure.

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