Gender and Science

Theral Timpson

Do women do science differently than men? Are women more intimate with their research subject, more personal, and therefore more intuitive? Is a man more rational and objective? Does a woman by nature choose projects that a man wouldn’t think of? The gender gap in science has narrowed. Science has a lot for women scientists. Do women have something special for science?

This was brought to the fore a few years back when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, made the controversial and career-altering remarks on this subject (he later resigned as president of Harvard and perhaps lost consideration to be Treasury Secretary in the Obama administration). In a talk to a 2005 conference on women and minorities in science and engineering, Summers suggested three reasons for the declining rate of women being offered tenure in the fields of science and math. First, he postulated, because women have children they are unable or unwilling to work 80 hour work weeks. Second he asserted (and this was the kicker) that differences in scores by high school students might have a biological basis. Third, he said it was not clear that discrimination played a role in the shortage of women in teaching positions of science and engineering at top universities. Summers had to apologize within 24 hours after receiving a letter from the Standing Committee on Women signed by many of the Harvard faculty.

Summers's suggestions were quite simplistic and the controversy is still newsworthy. Questions of gender rise quickly to the surface in a book I'm reading by one of our guest bloggers, Nathaniel Comfort, Ph D, science historian at Johns Hopkins, on the life of one of the most famous female scientists. Barbara McClintock is often mentioned by feminists as a woman scientist whose important contributions to the field of genetics were ignored by the leading geneticists of the time--all men-- and then later acknowledged, indeed eventually with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In his book, The Tangled Field, Comfort calls this a 'myth' and seeks to clarify the life and studies of this scientific giant and give some answers to the gender question.

“Here is the Barbara McClintock most people think they know,” he begins the book. For the first page and a half, Comfort summarizes the ‘myth‘ of his subject. She began as a geneticist in the 20’s and 30’s studying maize, or Indian corn, at Cornell University. When the others in her group got jobs--all men--she didn’t. She would eventually end up at Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island, New York, but was isolated from her colleagues. She didn’t even get a grad student. It was there she made her greatest discovery which she called transposition--the idea that genes jumped spontaneously to new sites on the chromosomes. When presenting her findings, the result of six years’ research, she was ignored. “A few scientists were outright hostile,” Comfort writes. An even harsher reaction occurred five years later when she tried presenting her research for a second time. “She ceased publishing and retreated into her laboratory, pursuing her meticulous experiments in isolation for decades.” In the ’70’s a new group of molecular biologists discovered transposition in their work and McClintock was seen as the pioneer. She began to win prizes culminating in her Nobel Prize in 1983.

“McClintock could challenge the canonical view of the gene," writes Comfort, "because she was not bound by dogma as other geneticists were. She attended to her corn plants with sensitivity, even empathy. Free from the ossified theory that constrained other scientists’ vision, she could see what others could not: genes were dynamic interactive, flexible. . . . She seems in every way the opposite of the archetypal molecular biologist: senior, humble, intuitive, and female working in the fields on a large, slow-growing, complex organism--in contrast to the young rational arrogant, male biologists working on bacteria and viruses.”

The story of McClintock being slighted by a male dominated field was perpetuated by another woman in science, Evelyn Fox Keller, also a biographer of McClintock. (Keller’s biography, A Feeling for the Organism, appeared just months before McClintock was awarded her Nobel Prize.) Keller was herself a scientist who had experienced difficulty in the male dominated world of science. “Harvard was a disaster,” she is quoted as saying in an extensive article in the Guardian from 2000. “It was a very difficult time to be a woman in a physics department.” Keller went from physics to biology, spending a summer at Cold Spring Harbor where she first came in contact with McClintock. Eventually Keller became a leading voice for the feminists of the 70’s and 80’s writing other books with titles such as Reflections on Gender and Science. In this book, she focused on the “historic conjunction of science and masculinity, and the equally historic disjunction between science and femininity. My subject therefore,” Keller stated at the outset, “is not women per se, or even women and science: it is the making of men, women, and science, or, more precisely, how the making of men and women has affected the making of science.” Keller explored how the common myth of masculinity as objective, impersonal, rational and mental on the one hand, and femininity being associated with subjectivity, feeling, the personal, and nature on the other has affected science itself.

“The consequence of such a division is not simply the exclusion of women from the practice of science. That exclusion itself is a symptom of a wider and deeper rift between feminine and masculine, subjective and objective, indeed between love and power--a rending of the human fabric that affects all of us, as women and men, as members of society, and even as scientists,” Keller wrote.

Though we have come a long way in guaranteeing women an equal playing field in the sciences, some basic questions remain. The science presented in a scientific research article is limited by the very language in which the discovery is couched. Just as I used the metaphor of a piece of furniture just now, scientific explanation is written in metaphor which, by necessity, is socially constructed. Objectivity in science has always been the high aim. The feminist, such as Keller, asks whether that “high aim” itself has not been a notion that comes from a field began and dominated by men. Should there be other ways and goals? For Keller, McClintock provided an alternative way of looking at science. If the history of modern science was the expression of a masculine intellectual type dating back to not just to Francis Bacon, but to Plato--a style which was dominating, controlling, reductionist, rational and linear, then McClintock was the example of an alternative that is holistic, intuitive, interactionist, even mystical.

In his book, Comfort gives Keller credit that she was not looking for an alternative ‘feminine science,’ but a non-gendered science. However, he points out that the myth of McClintock degenerated into “sentimental fancy.” McClintock was even considered a “mystic by nature, who tended to think intuitively.” This idea of McClintock defied the facts according to Comfort's research. Reading through hundreds of hours worth of his subject’s research notebooks, he arrives at the conclusion “McClintock’s alledgedly holistic, intuitive scientific style was in fact highly rational and based on immense experience and reading." In probing the concepts of "empathy" and "intuition" in the work of McClintock, Comfort disagrees with Keller and states that these are not gendered concepts. His research leads him finally to state that there is no feminine or masculine science, only good and bad science.

In a 1995 paper about feminist epistemology, Elizabeth Anderson of the University of Michigan points to a fear that feminism in science would be an extreme influence much like the perceived influence that totalitarian politics exerted over science and math. This fear is played upon in a joke from the former Soviet Union:

Apparatchik (impatiently):  How much is 2 + 2?
Mathematician (cautiously): How much do you want it to be?  

Is there truly no innate difference to the way women and men approach science? And if there is, does the approach matter when there is an independent way of testing the results?

Kathleen Okruhlik, professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Western Ontario, writes: “If you arrived at your hypothesis by reading tea leaves, it doesn’t matter so long as the hypothesis is confirmed . . . . You test the hypothesis in the tribunal of nature, and if it holds up, then you’re justified in holding on to it--whatever its origins.”

(Comments welcomed!)

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