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“Gendered Innovations in Science”

From the AWIS Washington Wire:

A new collection of essays, Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering, explores how taking gender into account in the areas of science, medicine, and engineering can enhance human knowledge.

Inside Higher Ed has a conversation with the editor, Londa Schiebinger. IHE leads annoyingly with this:

The discussion of gender and science can take place on many levels. Some focus on issues of bias in who gets to do science. Others use much broader definitions, looking at the impact of gender on scientific questions and findings, as well as on who leads the research enterprise.

What’s annoying is the assumption that considerations of how gender affects the science we do is a “broader” sort of inquiry than the (narrowly focused, less important, lower level) issue of bias and access. I don’t have any patience for this view. In fact, I can’t even see the two issues as completely mutually exclusive. They are interdependent.

  1. chemniste
    May 1, 2008 at 9:26 am

    So now the word ‘broad’ is synonymous with the word ‘important’?
    While I agree that the two issues are interdependent, if one person is focusing on the issue of bias in the sciences and another is looking at the issue of bias in the sciences *as well as* the impact of gender on scientific questions (as IHE wrote) then by any standard definition the inquiry of the second person *is* broader.

  2. Mecha
    May 1, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Chemniste: The issue that I see is that when you read that sentence construction, you get that if some ‘discussions’ focus on bias, and then other ‘discussions’ use broader definitions, what does that actually mean? Discussions don’t use broader meanings. People do.
    It becomes clearer what might be wrong with the sentence when you substitute the more natural construction of that sentence. ‘Some PEOPLE focus on the issue…. Other PEOPLE use much broader definitions…’ which, accidentally or purposefully, denigrates anyone who works on or talks about the first issue for being narrow.
    So what does that mean? Does that mean that the people in the first discussion don’t believe that the impact of gender on scientific questions/findings matters, because their views and discussions are ‘narrow’? Does it mean they’re dumb because they don’t ascribe to the broader view? There’s nothing positive about that statement, and in fact, since pointing out bias is something which more sexist sorts roundly decry, it fits very well in line with chiding anyone who works on pointing out bias a bit ‘too much.’
    I don’t think it was aiming for mutual exclusion, but it does feel like it could be aiming for making it more acceptable to study womens issues in science, as long as you don’t make your focus bias. AKA: ‘Stay away from mentioning how sexist we are, and we’ll let you do your little research into how the token women we do allow matter.’ The usage of levels further reinforces that.
    If one had wanted to imply that they were equally relevant and meaningful, they would have said something more like, ‘There are several components (not levels) to the discussion of gender and science. While many people may see bias as the only one, another such component is the impact of gender on scientific questions and findings, which we will be discussing today, etc, etc, etc.’
    I realize it’s easy for people to not think about those things, especially in introductions which you just want to get over with, but word choices matter. I think ‘annoyed’ is a very good way to put how to feel about that word choice. You know, barring more knowledge about the writer.
    -Mecha

  3. Becca
    May 1, 2008 at 11:26 am

    To some degree, I suppose the “who leads the research enterprise?” question *is* broarder than “who gets to do science?”… to the degree all science is research (which isn’t *strictly* true either, but anyway…), but all research is assuredly not science.
    We all know ‘academia = research = science’ is inaccurate, yet it can be tempting to think of it that way for those in this community.
    Still, I think the part of the quote that gets to me is the reinforcement that “who gets to do science?” is just about “how does bias against women affect female scientists?”. It’s a much broader question than that- and I do believe that (in general) those who are focusing on bias against women can/should (and often do) think about which of their findings can be applied to ethnic/cultural/socioeconomic status groups that are not well-represented in the sciences.
    In this sense, the question of “who gets to do science?” is very broad indeed.

  4. chemniste
    May 1, 2008 at 11:38 am

    It’s all about how you read the quote, I think it’s phrased fairly badly but I got the impression from the sentence structure that the term ‘the issues of bias in who gets to do science’ and the term ‘who leads the research enterprise’ were referring to the same thing. If that’s the case then there’s nothing belittling about using the term ‘broad’.

  5. May 1, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    In some parts of the feminist/women’s studies universe, the (usually high theory focused) examination of how the practice of science and its outcomes are gendered is actually considered a far more “advanced” and important level of feminist science critique than “merely” focusing on bias and discrimination. Many feminist science scholars come from the humanities, some from the social sciences, far fewer from science and engineering. There is a real sense in the community in which the questions “who gets to do science?” and “how can we open up science to underrepresented groups?” are considered merely first level stages of inquiry before you advance to the really important and meaty high theory issues like how the atom is gendered. Some (but not all) feminist science scholars give the impression that focusing on bias and access is pointless; getting more women, for example, into science will not matter or will even be impossible unless and until the currently gendered nature of science is acknowledged and transformed. I have been frustrated by what I have seen at times, a privileging of theoretical analyses of science to the near exclusion of concern for actual “others” who are trying to get their feet in the science door. Don’t get me wrong, I read and find much of value in many “high theory” critiques of science and I think this kind of work is important work. I just don’t think it’s necessarily MORE important than dealing with access and bias.

  6. G.D.
    May 1, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Ahh, but here you actually manage to point out one of the major obstacles when it comes to gender equality in the sciences. Namely that feminism so often is associated with the kind of postmodernism charlatanery that gendered atom is an excellent example of – “how the atom is gendered” is silly beyond anything Ben Stein could have dreamt up, and the whole pomo madness/conspiracy theory thing (often based on the utterly inane and fraudulent ramblings of people like Kristeva, Baudrillard, Derrida, Irigaray etc; and yes, they are just your old-fashioned conspiracy theories, though cast in more abstract and impenetrable language) is not one notch above the anti-science right wing movement. Persons who compare square-root signs with phalluses or denounce Tarski’s theory ot truth for formalized languages for failing to contribute to emancipating oppressed minorities ought not to be taken seriously by educated people anywhere … In my opinion, the most effective thing serious feminists could do in order to achieve anything at all – and access and bias are definitely important issues – would be to distance themselves from the kooks. Being on the wrong side in the science wars is definitely not going to work to the advantage of gender equality – unless you are considering joining forces with the young earth people in the fight for “academic freedom” …?
    Thing is, I see no difference between pomo “anti-essentialism” and the general claims of the Discovery institute. It doesn’t get “high theory” just because you mix in some unfamiliar and technical terms and scientific vocabulary there. Usually it works because the audience have no more clue about science than the authors.

  7. May 1, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Sigh. I hesitated to post my comment above for just this reason – that someone would take it to mean that I am dismissing all feminist critiques of science as stupid and useless. This is by no means what I think. The project of analyzing the gendered nature of scientific practice is a worthy one. Not all feminist critiques of science are based on postmodernist theories.

  8. Interrobang
    May 15, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Not all feminist critiques of science are based on postmodernist theories.
    And not all postmodernist theory is complete crap, either. If you take the view that my professors in grad school did, that postmodernist theory is another “lens” through which to examine a problem (much as how, in economics, one can, dare I say, deconstruct the same model using Adam Smith’s ideas, Keynesian principles, or postulates derived from the work of William Vickrey), it becomes a useful tool in an arsenal of tools. It works similarly as how very few people would actually propose living in a Marxist paradigm, but lots of people use Marx’s ideas to analyse everything from economics to gendered power relations. You can almost certainly derive useful information by using parts of postmodernist theory to analyse applicable problems in feminist critique of science.
    On the other hand, I personally don’t have a problem with “anti-essentialism” in any form; there’s entirely too much essentialism in our culture, born out of an early-Christian loathing for anything but binary opposites, and the even older notion of the Platonic Idea. If those two pernicious ideas went away tomorrow, I’d be a happy person.

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