The sci­ence ques­tion and fem­i­nism

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Mar­garet Wertheim

em­i­nism” isn’t a four-let­ter word in Australia. The same can­not be said in the US, where I’ve been liv­ing for the past 25 years. Even among my lib­eral Amer­i­can friends many hes­i­tate to iden­tify with the term, and a com­mon phrase I hear from young women on cam­puses across the coun­try when I’m giv­ing lec­tures is “I’m not a fem­i­nist, but …”

The dif­fer­ence between the two na­tions was pow­er­fully brought home to me re­cently when I at­tended the Vic­to­rian Women’s Trust “Break­through” con­fer­ence at the Melbourne Town Hall. Over two days, be­fore an al­most thou­sand-strong au­di­ence, 130 speak­ers cel­e­brated the achieve­ments of fem­i­nism and be­gan the task of map­ping out an agenda for re­al­is­ing gen­der equality.

Speaker af­ter speaker re­minded us how far we have come while also de­scrib­ing the dis­tance still to go. High­lights in­cluded Rosie Batty on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; three fe­male politi­cians – La­bor, Lib­eral and an in­de­pen­dent – dis­cussing quo­tas and glass ceil­ings, with even an ad­mir­ing nod to Pauline Han­son; and ac­tor Rachel Grif­fiths de­liv­er­ing a lyri­cal med­i­ta­tion on the dire out­come of the Amer­i­can elec­tion and its con­se­quences for her daugh­ters.

New Zealand hu­man-rights ac­tivist Mar­i­lyn War­ing closed with a rous­ing speech on the “lie” of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) and its fail­ure still to in­clude, in as­sess­ments of na­tional wealth, much of the work that women do. As War­ing noted, sev­eral re­vi­sions to the way GDP is cal­cu­lated have re­sulted in such in­clu­sions as the “value” of un­used weapons and un­ex­ploded bombs, but have yet to ex­tend to par­ent­ing or to breast milk, a com­mod­ity that the writer Peggy O’Mara has priced out as worth ap­prox­i­mately $30 bil­lion a year to the US econ­omy alone.

Top­ics at Break­through ranged from misog­y­nis­tic on­line trolling to re­li­gious faith, law re­form and gen­der in­equities in su­per­an­nu­a­tion. Writ­ers, broad­cast­ers, aca­demics, ath­letes, en­trepreneurs, car­toon­ists, co­me­di­ans, refugee ad­vo­cates, In­dige­nous ac­tivists, body-image ex­perts, trade union­ists and mu­si­cians stirred our neu­ronal juices and caused us to cheer, cry and whoop with laugh­ter at the won­drous co­nun­drum of be­ing a woman in the 21st cen­tury.

Ab­sent from the agenda was any dis­cus­sion of sci­ence. I raise this not as a point of crit­i­cism but rather with a note of sad­ness, and also a hint of alarm.

As a sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor, I’ve made it my mis­sion over a 30-year ca­reer to try to share the joys and im­por­tance of sci­ence with the pub­lic, es­pe­cially women. Why, I won­dered, in a con­fer­ence so di­verse wasn’t there a sin­gle ses­sion on the STEM dis­ci­plines – sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics – with the ex­cep­tion, I sup­pose, of the one on in­ter­net ha­rass­ment?

This isn’t a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port by con­sult­ing firm PwC, around 75% of the fastest-grow­ing Aus­tralian job cat­e­gories re­quire STEM train­ing, while 40% of the coun­try’s jobs are at risk of be­ing elim­i­nated by tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments.

Dur­ing a key­note ad­dress to the Aus­tralian En­gi­neer­ing Con­fer­ence in Novem­ber, Chief Sci­en­tist Alan Finkel pointed out that “China is run by an en­gi­neer. The CEOs of Ama­zon, Google, Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft are en­gi­neers. In fact, of the ten largest Amer­i­can com­pa­nies on the US stock ex­change as of last week, five are run by en­gi­neers, three are run by Bach­e­lors of Sci­ence, and one is run by a Bach­e­lor of Ap­plied Math­e­mat­ics.”

Peo­ple trained in STEM sub­jects don’t just make stuff, they make money. Some­times, tons of it.

Of the 100 bil­lion­aires on the 2016 Forbes list of the Rich­est Peo­ple in Tech, just five are women.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est sur­vey of the Aus­tralian en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sion, in 2011, only 9.7% of our en­gi­neers are women, and of the to­tal STEM work­force 28% are women. That’s in con­trast to the 55% of ter­tiary-qual­i­fied Aus­tralian pro­fes­sion­als who are women. On the whole, STEM jobs pay well, so women are miss­ing out here on a sig­nif­i­cant pool of em­ploy­ment at a time when well-paid jobs of any de­scrip­tion are get­ting harder to come by.

Fol­low­ing Mar­i­lyn War­ing’s ex­am­ple, I don’t want to over-val­orise mak­ing money, although gen­der gaps in pay and re­lated eco­nomic fac­tors were a huge part of the agenda for the Break­through con­fer­ence.

Peo­ple trained in STEM dis­ci­plines may also go on to pow­er­ful po­si­tions in other fields, in­clud­ing pol­i­tics. The new sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions, An­tónio Guter­res, is an en­gi­neer, along with China’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, and his two pre­de­ces­sors.

As Mal­colm Turn­bull seems to end­lessly stress, we live in an age of “in­no­va­tion” – of new med­i­cal tech­nolo­gies, en­ergy sys­tems, agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies, ma­te­ri­als (elec­tron­ics, op­ti­cals, com­pos­ites), ve­hi­cles (driver­less cars, bul­let trains), com­mu­ni­ca­tions tools, soft­ware. Whether we agree or dis­agree with this arc of his­tory, a sub­stan­tial part of our fu­ture eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity as a na­tion is bound up with how STEMsavvy we will be. As Australia im­ple­ments its “in­no­va­tion strate­gies”, women should be part of the plan­ning and shap­ing of pol­icy, and shar­ing in the re­wards. We can’t do that if we don’t have the train­ing. Or the in­ter­est.

Which brings me to the sad­ness I felt at Break­through. I’d trained as a physi­cist not be­cause I wanted to in­vent a bet­ter mi­crochip but be­cause I loved the sub­ject. I went into sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion to share that passion, and from the start I

made a com­mit­ment to en­gag­ing women. I’m proud to say that (to my knowl­edge) I am the only jour­nal­ist in the world who’s writ­ten a reg­u­lar sci­ence col­umn for Vogue – and I can state from ex­pe­ri­ence that it’s harder to write about cos­mol­ogy for a fash­ion mag­a­zine than for New Sci­en­tist or the New York Times.

In 1990 I con­ceived and wrote a six-part ABC tele­vi­sion sci­ence se­ries aimed at teenage girls. Over the past decade I’ve been spear­head­ing an in­ter­na­tional sci­ence and art project that’s en­gaged nearly 10,000 women in a dozen coun­tries: we’ve been col­lec­tively cro­chet­ing sculp­tural in­stal­la­tions of coral reefs in an en­ter­prise that deals with cli­mate change, eco­log­i­cal de­struc­tion and the foun­da­tions of ge­om­e­try.

At heart I’m a sci­en­tist. I’m also a fem­i­nist. But in my ex­pe­ri­ence these two do­mains al­most never in­ter­sect. While fem­i­nists of­ten see sci­ence as pe­riph­eral to their con­cerns, too many sci­en­tists tend to view fem­i­nism as an ir­rel­e­vant and po­ten­tially hos­tile force.

Why ei­ther side should care about the other has been a sub­ject of in­tense study by a small group of (mainly) Amer­i­can fem­i­nist sci­ence stud­ies schol­ars since the 1980s.

There are two an­gles to be con­sid­ered here: “Why should fem­i­nists care about sci­ence?” and “Why should sci­en­tists care about fem­i­nism?”

The first is ac­tu­ally eas­ier to ar­tic­u­late, in part for the prag­matic rea­sons I’ve dis­cussed above. Ap­ple, Google and Facebook et al sit at epi­cen­tres of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ing. They work, and of­ten col­lude, with gov­ern­ments on a wide spec­trum of tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific is­sues that mat­ter to us all, from sur­veil­lance to ac­cess­ing and ac­quir­ing med­i­cal data. If women are to achieve equality and par­tic­i­pate fully in fu­ture de­ci­sion-mak­ing about crit­i­cal so­cial is­sues, we can­not cede this ter­ri­tory.

But let me also make a philo­soph­i­cal case, as sci­ence stud­ies schol­ars such as Evelyn Fox Keller did 30 years ago. In post-En­light­en­ment so­ci­ety, sci­ence has be­come a source of im­mense epis­te­mo­log­i­cal power. How we talk about re­al­ity these days is bound up with sci­en­tific the­o­ries and dis­cov­er­ies, be they in the realm of psy­chol­ogy, medicine, evo­lu­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, cog­ni­tion or cos­mol­ogy.

Ever since sci­ence re­placed re­li­gion as the foun­da­tion of Western so­ci­ety’s of­fi­cial world pic­ture, it has had a cen­tral place in our think­ing about what it means to be hu­man. One of the goals of fem­i­nist sci­ence stud­ies – like War­ing’s chal­lenge to the pa­tri­ar­chal as­sump­tions em­bed­ded in mea­sure­ments of GDP – is to in­ter­ro­gate and chal­lenge un­con­scious bi­ases. The idea that sci­ence rests on a purely ob­jec­tive set of pre­sup­po­si­tions is, like the fal­lacy of a so­cially neu­tral GDP, a myth.

And that’s why fem­i­nism also has some­thing to of­fer sci­ence. When new co­horts of peo­ple with dif­fer­ent so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences come into sci­ence, sci­ence it­self can ex­pand in di­rec­tions it might not have done with­out those voices. The ge­neti­cist Bar­bara McClin­tock was awarded the No­bel Prize for dis­cov­er­ing jump­ing genes. McClin­tock changed our fun­da­men­tal un­der­stand­ing of how genes work, and Fox Keller has con­vinc­ingly ar­gued that her rad­i­cal take on the sub­ject was due in part to her un­ortho­dox back­ground – her gen­der. That doesn’t mean all her ideas came from her ex­pe­ri­ences as a woman, but in this and other cases women have brought pi­o­neer­ing ideas to the sci­en­tific ta­ble, and it’s hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that at least some of this stems from our dif­fer­ent so­cial­i­sa­tion.

One of the propo­si­tions put for­ward by fem­i­nist sci­ence stud­ies schol­ars is that in sci­ence, as in eco­nom­ics (the “dis­mal sci­ence”), def­i­ni­tions mat­ter. Con­cepts mat­ter. Ter­mi­nol­ogy mat­ters. Who gets to de­ter­mine def­i­ni­tions and con­cepts mat­ters. That doesn’t mean all sci­ence is rel­a­tive. The strength of the force of grav­ity isn’t up for grabs. The bi­nary op­po­si­tion between “rel­a­tivism” and “ob­jec­tivism” is also a false di­chotomy, and we ur­gently need ways of dis­cussing how sci­en­tific ideas can be use­ful and true with­out fall­ing into the fal­lacy that they are the whole truth, or “noth­ing but” the truth.

In the way that I un­der­stand fem­i­nism, one of its ob­jec­tives is to open out our com­pre­hen­sion of what it means to be hu­man and to tease out how our ideas about “truth” re­late to our ex­pe­ri­ences in our nec­es­sar­ily mul­ti­ple modal­i­ties of hu­man-be­ing-ness. Mar­i­lyn War­ing has shown us the ne­ces­sity of do­ing this in eco­nom­ics, yet how much vaster is the whole do­main of sci­ence?

As I was leav­ing the Break­through con­fer­ence with my mother, Bar­bara Wertheim, a pi­o­neer­ing se­cond-wave fem­i­nist who helped set up Australia’s first na­tional women’s refuge pro­gram, we ran into Anne Sum­mers, who had MC-ed some of the ses­sions. My mother asked her old friend if she thought that women to­day – with all the de­mands from our jobs and our fam­i­lies – have time to be ac­tivists, lob­by­ing as she and her peers had tire­lessly done in the 1970s for the changes young women now take for granted. Sum­mers shot back the per­fect an­swer: “They don’t have time not to.”

Sum­mers is draft­ing a Women’s Man­i­festo to out­line what needs to be done to achieve gen­der equality. I asked if the doc­u­ment would in­clude any men­tion of sci­ence. For a mo­ment this in­de­fati­ga­ble woman looked weary. Then, perk­ing up, she made an anal­ogy with a Christ­mas tree in dan­ger of be­com­ing over­loaded with dec­o­ra­tions. “We must make cer­tain the trunk of the tree is strong,” she said.

I knew im­me­di­ately what she meant. We fem­i­nists are al­ready car­ry­ing an enor­mous load. We are charg­ing our­selves with noth­ing less than the trans­for­ma­tion of so­ci­ety. We are try­ing to the­o­rise about rad­i­cal changes in how work is con­ceived, time ap­por­tioned, money al­lot­ted, ef­fort ac­knowl­edged, care re­warded. And we’re try­ing to shep­herd these changes through com­plex so­cial and po­lit­i­cal mine­fields. Fem­i­nism at its core is a project of re-con­ceiv­ing and re-en­gi­neer­ing the hu­man con­di­tion. We can­not do ev­ery­thing at once. But, echo­ing Sum­mers, I would ar­gue in re­la­tion to STEM that at this pivotal point in his­tory we don’t have time not to en­gage.

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