Home > Why Aren't You Reading This? > Ethics in Chemistry, Applications to Gender in Science?

Ethics in Chemistry, Applications to Gender in Science?

There’s a great review over at Adventures in Ethics and Science on a book called The Ethical Chemist: Professionalism and Ethics in Science by Jeffrey Kovac. The book takes a case study approach to teaching ethics in science.

The case studies are concise but rich with possibilities, and range from situations one might encounter as a student taking chemistry classes (or dealing with professors) to issues that might face the academic scientist trying to make a discovery or the industrial chemist trying to shore up the bottom line. Each case is followed by a brief commentary that examines the central ethical questions of the case in a bit more detail and raises further issues that might be relevant in formulating a good response to the case. These commentaries don’t identify a particular response as the best response to the case (which would kind of defeat the purpose — why think through a response on your own if the commentary is going to tell you how to respond?), but instead use the additional issues and questions to add a level or two of complexity to the case. In other words, the commentaries encourage the reader to revisit their initial response to a case and refine her model of what a good chemist would do here by building additional considerations into this model. Ethical reasoning is not presented as an all-or-nothing activity, but an iterative process of getting closer and closer to behaviors best suited for the activities of the chemical profession (and the good of the society to which those professionals go home at night).

It’s a great review, you should read it all. The book focuses on chemists, but it sounds like it could be of use to scientists in other disciplines as well. It’s good to see something written at length about ethics for scientists that deals specifically with the kinds of ethical situations scientists confront in everyday life, from the seemingly small to the very large dilemmas.


I’m imagining a similar book written to help scientists think about dealing with gender in everyday life…incorporating Virginia Valian’s work on gender schemas. Something like that could be really interesting…but would anyone use it? That’s the question… The book could deal with diversity issues in general.
You could have case studies on

  • The search committee: reviewing c.v.s and unconscous bias. You can’t generally hide on a c.v. if you’re male or female, unless your name is ambiguous. Similarly, names or organizational affiliations will sometimes give clues about race. A reviewer will take in this information and can’t help reacting to it. Then what?
  • The candidate: crafting your c.v. There was a discussion on the Chronicle forums recently about whether or not to list the date of your degrees on the c.v. One respondent does not list dates because of worries about age discrimination. Another respondent felt that anybody who hides information has something to hide.
  • The interview: as the candidate, do you bring up the two-body problem, if you have one? If you are female and married, do you take off your wedding ring before the interview so as to avoid behind-your-back dismissals like “She’s married, there’s going to be a problem with her spouse” or “she’s married, she’s probably got kids and won’t be devoted to her career”?
  • How do you handle something like this? (The whole story can be found here.)

Wow, we could probably just mine women scientist blogs for all sorts of un-nifty real-life case studies. There’s a lot of good information that the various university ADVANCE programs have collected and designed that could be incorporated as well.
Well, any such book would need an ethics expert, so Dr. Free-Ride would have to be involved. I think it’s an interesting idea, but again, I wonder if people would really use it. Thoughts? Does such a book exist already?
I think there already exist books that tell women how to cope with patriarchal organizations. What I’m envisioning is a book that gives examples, small and large, for the conscientious individual (male or female) who wishes to counteract gender schemas. Also possibly to instruct the somewhat less conscientious to raise awareness of ethical issues around diversity. Institutional transformation for the individual through daily personal interactions, if you will. Does that even make sense?
If you are reading this and you have worked on an ADVANCE program, I’d really appreciate hearing your thoughts, either in the comments or by private email. bobtownsuz AT yahoo DOT com.

  1. July 11, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    It’s worth noting that Kovac does include a handful of cases where discrimination on the basis of gender and race is clearly happening or a distinct possibility, and the commentaries he includes with these cases address not only the legalities but the practical issues involved with responding to crappy behavior from someone who has a lot more power than you do.
    But I agree that issues of gender (and race, too) in navigating the scientific community could generate huge sets of case studies which would race many subtle and interesting ethical and practical questions.

  2. July 11, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Yay for Kovac! I couldn’t tell from your review whether he did or not, but was hoping he did.
    Another question: Would it be better to have a separate text on these issues, or is it better to have them “integrated” into an ethics text like the one you reviewed? Mainstream them, normalize them, so to speak?

  3. PhysioProf
    July 11, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    “Institutional transformation for the individual through daily personal interactions, if you will. Does that even make sense?”
    I think it does. I am serving right now in the program committee for the annual meeting of a moderate size scientific society. Every time we discuss the makeup of particular symposia and breakout sessions in the meeting, I make a point of saying: “Let’s be sure we are considering as many women and under-represented minorities as possible for invitations to speak. Anyone who has suggestions of names, let’s hear them.”
    If enough individuals do this over and over, eventually this way of thinking will start to seep in to the “ordinary course of business”, and become natural.

  4. July 11, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    and….?? PhysioProf don’t be coy now. how is this initiative going over? what success has it had?
    do you get embarrassed silence? a chorus of new ideas?

  5. PhysioProf
    July 12, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    My experience has been that most people genuinely want to level the playing field, and try hard to come up with names.

  6. July 13, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    Yeah, I have a similar experience from the much smaller perspective of departmental seminar series. I only had to say it once, btw, and for years the committee worked hard to come up with women to invite. We no doubt went over field representation in the eventual speaker list but it still wasn’t 50/50 of course. It may not exactly be “Institutional transformation for the individual through daily personal interactions, if you will.” but it does show that work from within, even from the (semi)empowered oppressor-class can have some tangible results.
    The thing I wonder about is, if it is really this simple, why in hell is the voice asking “err, how we doin’ with women and minorities on our list” usually absent? ‘course, I’ve also been in BigGrant meetings at a place that is, let us say, WAAAAAY impressed with itself wherein the chuckle-snarks about a likely site visitor being “obsessed with affirmative action” were flying freely with two obviously minority junior investigators sitting right there. so maybe it wouldn’t always be a matter of speaking up…

  7. PhysioProf
    July 14, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    “[W]hy in hell is the voice asking ‘err, how we doin’ with women and minorities on our list’ usually absent?”
    In order of perceived prevalence:
    (1) ignorance
    (2) apathy
    (3) fear
    (4) malice
    The fact that categories 1 and 2 have a major influence on keeping possible allies silent is exactly why blogs like Zuska’s can have a great influence. I believe that as old, rude, bigoted fucks age out of the system, things will get better and better for women and minorities in science. But only if those of us who replace them make a conscious effort not to ourselves become those same old, rude, bigoted fucks.

  8. July 16, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    “only if those of us who replace them make a conscious effort not to ourselves become those same old, rude, bigoted f”
    In a post or comment a while back, TSZ touched on a key issue. We’ve had a good two-three decades of women entering the workplace on a more (that’s a qualifier people) equal or welcoming footing than before. There is (was?) a school of thought that gradually more female participation in various workplaces would erode discrimination while at the same time, a new generation would come along that was “used to” a gender-integrated workplace. “Used to” the idea that yes, women work in exactly the same jobs as men. Ditto, ditto, ditto minority participation in various workplaces. IIRC, Zuska’s comment was more or less “why isn’t this working then?”.
    is it that people who start off “good” somehow inevitably become “those same old rude, bigoted fucks”? Or is it that since that phenotype still has all the advantages it perpetuates itself because those are exactly the folks who excel, say at science? Combined with the aforementioned old rude bigoted types giving the helping hands to those who are most like themselves? and tend to boot those guys like Rob K who speak up at faculty meeting? and then there is James Sherley, although I don’t know wtf to make of this one…

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