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Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Emily.

A while back on this blog, the question was raised in a couple of comments about what the impact of greater participation for women in science might be.  I think it’s actually part of a larger question underlying several conversations on the blog:  To what extent are women different from men in ways that might make their contributions to social processes and structures different from the contributions of men?

This question isn’t really my favorite because, as Nava put it recently, I am not too concerned about whether or not there are preexisting differences between men and women that lead them to act differently.  But in recent weeks my studies have really led me to concentrate on the question of how participation in science — specifically who participates — shapes the work that is done.

It turns out that there are people saying some really interesting things on the subject.  I have had the opportunity to read about a number of examples where assumptions about gender have seeped into science work and shaped the theories that were developed: theories that our early human ancestors came to walk on two feet because men needed to hold tools to hunt; theories that among monkeys, chimps, and other primates, the actions of men are most important to determining what happens in the group, suggesting that it is only “natural” that the same be true for humans; theories that the highest stage of moral development consists of decision-making on the basis of an appreciation for universal rights, and research that suggests that women tend to demonstrate this “highest stage” less often than men.  My favorite example of a theory influenced by gender bias is the following, pointed out by a woman named Emily Martin.

Martin examines the story of conception.  We all know it, right?  Scientific fact learned in school.  Many tiny sperm travel through the female reproductive system until they come upon a patiently waiting egg.  The strongest and most capable sperm beats out the others, powerfully burrows through the outer layers of egg and badda bing – there you have an adorable little zygote.  Sound like anything else you’ve heard?  Emily Martin compares this explanation to a fairy tale: the fragile damsel of an egg, waiting for her existence to take on meaning with the arrival of a strong, determined sperm.  It’s an entertaining comparison, but her analysis of the language used in textbooks and science journals to describe the actions of the sperm and the egg are quite compelling:

It is remarkable how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tubes. In utter contrast, the sperm are small, “streamlined,” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered… “with a whiplashlike motion and strong lurches” they can “burrow through the egg coat” and “penetrate” it.  (Martin, 1991, 489)

Even more interestingly, later research in biology found that sperm actually have very little forward force and that the egg has a much greater role in binding the two together.  Yet, quite strikingly, the language employed by the authors of such findings often continued to portray the sperm as the active party that penetrates and fertilizes.  It seems that perceived gender roles first made it difficult for scientists to see what was happening in conception, and then after certain discoveries, it was still difficult to move past certain ways of talking.

A few final examples of how gender might affect scientific work:  One female physicist I read remarked on how the culture of physics might be different with more female participation (generally only 10-20% of physicists at the moment), as the culture currently relies heavily on self-promotion, which she argues has been difficult for the female physicists she has known.  In the social sciences, academics identifying as feminists have made many contributions to discussions of research methods, pushing for methods that try to diffuse power relations, that pay more attention to diversity among research participants, and that are directed towards responding to human needs.

These academics aren’t suggesting that the biological differences between men and women lead to differences in contributions to science.  But they are asserting that greater participation of women in science may bring in new perspectives and draw attention to ways that previous theories and methods were based on incorrect assumptions or limited understandings.  The same, I think, is true regarding the participation of people from diverse nationalities and cultural traditions.  Examining reality from more and more diverse standpoints holds the potential to generate greater insights into the workings of that reality.

I share these discussions from the field of science studies as a part of my own effort to engender equality by slowly learning to participate in relevant discourses and share insights between conversations.  In the readings I have done over the past several weeks, I have found people saying a number of interesting things about the role of gender in science.  As I have been working on organizing my thoughts in relation to this literature, I’ve been thinking about the importance of really listening to what others are saying, trying to identify the underlying assumptions that shape their logic, and reflecting on ways that insights that I have gained from other conversations—such as discussions here regarding the Advancing Towards Equality document—might offer points that contribute to moving the discourse ahead.  In the case of the discussion on gender in science that I have shared here, I deeply appreciate the insights I find in that conversation; at the same time, I hear in the discussions points that I find rather limited, for example, assumptions that efforts to integrate knowledge from different sources will necessarily lead to the oppression of some types of knowledge.  Many of the authors whose analysis I value tend to recommend as a solution separate sciences for different social groups; but these for me call to mind warnings of a “deeply fragmented social reality” that come from “narrowly identifying with particular physical or social characteristics and placing them at the center of our understanding of self and other” found in the Advancing Towards Equality document.  Somewhere in this interplay of diversity and oneness I feel there might be a space for insights from these two conversations to be brought together to illuminate one another.

Interested in sharing your experience promoting the equality of women and men? write a post and send it to engenderingequality@gmail.com