Say­ing no to sex­ism in sci­ence

There’s noth­ing in­nate about sci­en­tific abil­ity, but some male sci­en­tists, in South Africa and in­ter­na­tion­ally, still be­lieve women can’t cut it

Mail & Guardian - - Swimming Against The Tide - Christa Kuljian

‘Physics was in­vented and built by men,” said Alessan­dro Stru­mia, a se­nior Ital­ian sci­en­tist, in a sem­i­nar in Septem­ber on gen­der is­sues in physics at Cern, the Euro­pean nu­clear re­search cen­tre in Geneva.

The rea­son, he said, for the dis­crep­ancy in the num­bers of men and women in the field is that women are in­nately less ca­pa­ble than men. He then sug­gested that male sci­en­tists are be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against in order to give op­por­tu­ni­ties to women.

More than 4000 sci­en­tists from around the globe have signed a state­ment point­ing out the sci­en­tific and moral prob­lems with Stru­mia’s re­marks.

“Physics and sci­ence are part of the shared in­her­i­tance of all people, as much as art, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture, and we should strive to en­sure that ev­ery­one has a fair op­por­tu­nity to be­come a sci­en­tist,” reads the state­ment.

Man­glin Pil­lay, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the South African In­sti­tute of Civil En­gi­neer­ing, wrote in an ar­ti­cle in July that women “pre­fer to choose care or people-ori­ented ca­reers, while men tend to choose ca­reers that ori­ent them to things and me­chan­ics”.

“Should we be in­vest­ing so heav­ily in at­tract­ing women into STEM ca­reers [sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths], specif­i­cally en­gi­neer­ing?” Pil­lay asked.

In re­ac­tion, Womeng, an or­gan­i­sa­tion for women in en­gi­neer­ing, is­sued a state­ment: “To dis­count the con­tri­bu­tion women have made to this sec­tor is a grave in­jus­tice and to re­duce us only to care­givers is a trav­esty.”

James Damore, a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Google, wrote in an in­ter­nal memo in July 2017: “The gen­der gap in tech” ex­ists be­cause of bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women. He based his con­clu­sion on “an evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy per­spec­tive” and ar­gued that these dif­fer­ences are in­nate and bred into us by natural selection.

Google fired Damore for “ad­vanc­ing harm­ful gen­der stereo­types in our work­place”, a vi­o­la­tion of the com­pany’s code of con­duct. Damore has filed a class ac­tion law­suit, claim­ing that Google is dis­crim­i­nat­ing against con­ser­va­tive white and Asian men.

Many sci­en­tists have pushed back against Damore, ques­tion­ing the ac­cu­racy of the “sci­ence” he cited. Physi­cist Jess Wade ar­gues that “those bi­ases have cal­ci­fied the idea that the in­equities that sur­round us are rooted in our bi­ol­ogy rather than our so­ci­ety”.

Why has there been a flurry of state­ments re­cently from male sci­en­tists claim­ing that women have less ca­pac­ity in the sciences than men? What as­pects of the his­tory of sci­ence con­trib­ute to the per­sis­tence of these views?

In 2016, I pub­lished a book about the his­tory of palaeoan­thro­pol­ogy and ge­net­ics in South Africa. Dar­win’s Hunch: Sci­ence, Race and the Search for Hu­man Ori­gins ex­plores the fol­low­ing ques­tions: How has the chang­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­text shaped the search for hu­man ori­gins? What influence did colo­nial­ism, apartheid and sci­en­tific racism have on the search? And how did sci­en­tists’ as­sump­tions shape their re­search ques­tions about hu­man evo­lu­tion?

My next book is in­spired by Ruth Hub­bard, the first woman to achieve ten­ure in bi­ol­ogy at Har­vard. Her course on bi­ol­ogy and women’s is­sues that I took in 1983 helped me to see the ten­dency for male sci­en­tists to use bi­ol­ogy to af­firm pa­tri­archy. Hub­bard wrote nu­mer­ous books and ar­ti­cles on this topic.

Hub­bard stood be­fore a lec­ture hall of un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents, wear­ing cor­duroy jeans and walk­ing shoes, with wispy salt and pep­per hair in a braid. She showed us that there were sci­en­tists who be­lieved the Vic­to­rian stereo­type of the ac­tive male and the pas­sive fe­male, and that these sci­en­tists im­posed their be­liefs on their re­search, whether it was with an­i­mals, hu­mans, al­gae or bac­te­ria. Hub­bard of­ten de­scribed these sci­en­tists as “pro­mot­ing a self­ful­fill­ing prophecy”.

“The rea­son for the sur­vival of these re­cur­rent [bi­o­log­i­cal] de­ter­min­ist the­o­ries is that they con­sis­tently tend to pro­vide a ge­netic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the sta­tus quo and of ex­ist­ing priv­i­leges for cer­tain groups ac­cord­ing to class, race or sex,” wrote Hub­bard and sev­eral of her col­leagues in the Novem­ber 1975 issue of the New York Re­view of Books.

They cri­tiqued so­cio­bi­ol­ogy, a new field that ar­gued that men and women had dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties and abil­i­ties as a re­sult of the dif­fer­ent roles they played hun­dreds of thou­sands of years ago as hunter gath­er­ers.

As a re­sult of Hub­bard’s course, I wrote my un­der­grad­u­ate the­sis about how male physi­cians in the United States from 1870 to 1920 por­trayed women’s bi­ol­ogy as in­fe­rior to men’s. They urged young women to stay away from fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion and fo­cus on their re­pro­duc­tive function in­stead.

“What an in­ge­nious way for the elite male com­mu­nity to keep women in ‘their place’. And it seems lu­di­crous to me that any por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion — male sci­en­tists, etc — would try to break off women as a sub­set of hu­man­ity and try to prove them to be in­fe­rior,” I wrote in an es­say.

“I re­alise the fac­tor of self-in­ter­est, but dis­cour­ag­ing com­pe­tent, skilled, in­tel­li­gent women seems to be against the bet­ter in­ter­est of so­ci­ety. Un­for­tu­nately, the fran­tic search for bi­o­log­i­cal sex dif­fer­ences per­sists to­day as it did a hun­dred years ago.”

Decades later, this search for bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences per­sists. Thou­sands of women sci­en­tists around the world are ask­ing why. My new book will re­turn to this sub­ject, which I ex­plored as a young stu­dent.

Hub­bard died in Septem­ber 2016, but she would be glad to know that a new wave of women sci­en­tists is push­ing back against the old de­bates, and dis­agree­ing with men like Stru­mia, Pil­lay and Damore.

In the month that Hub­bard died, Mar­got Lee Shet­terly pub­lished Hid­den Fig­ures, the book that was made into the film of the same name, about African-amer­i­can women math­e­ma­ti­cians, such as Kather­ine Johnson, who played a crit­i­cal role at Nasa in the 1960s.

In 2017, An­gela Saini, a Bri­tish­based sci­ence writer, pub­lished In­fe­rior: How Sci­ence Got Women Wrong — and the New Re­search that’s Rewrit­ing the Story. In the same year, Wade, a Bri­tish physi­cist at Im­pe­rial Col­lege, be­gan writ­ing hun­dreds of Wikipedia en­tries about un­recog­nised and over­looked women sci­en­tists.

Wade, who works in ex­per­i­men­tal, solid-state physics, was in the au­di­ence when Stru­mia gave his talk. She says: “When people in po­si­tions of power spread such ideas, they teach the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists that such be­hav­iour is okay. Ob­vi­ously, it isn’t.”

On so­cial me­dia, there is grow­ing at­ten­tion to women in STEM with hash­tags in­clud­ing #Womenin­stem, #Womenin­tech, and #Stem­i­nists. Only weeks af­ter Stru­mia’s com­ments, Donna Strick­land, along with Ger­ard Mourou, won the No­bel prize for physics, based on her break­through work with lasers.

The Mail & Guardian’s list of 200 Young South Africans this year re­vealed a grow­ing num­ber of women in sci­ence and the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion states that “more black and women re­searchers are en­ter­ing the field at con­sid­er­ably higher rates than pre­vi­ously”.

Kim Tommy, a PHD can­di­date in palaeoan­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand and head of sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence in Palaeo­sciences, wrote in an ar­ti­cle for The Fe­male Sci­en­tist ear­lier this year: “Sci­ence has been used as a weapon in the past to fur­ther the agenda of op­pres­sive pow­ers.”

Twenty-eight years ago, Hub­bard wrote: “Sci­en­tific ob­jec­tiv­ity of­fers no pro­tec­tion against prej­u­dices sci­en­tists share with their so­ci­ety.”

She de­scribed how sci­en­tific re­search can be flawed, and she in­spired a new gen­er­a­tion of women in sci­ence.

Decades later, we’ve still got work to do.

Christa Kuljian is the au­thor of Sanc­tu­ary (Ja­cana 2013) and Dar­win’s Hunch: Sci­ence, Race and the Search for Hu­man Ori­gins (Ja­cana 2016). She is a re­search as­so­ciate at Wiser

Hard ev­i­dence: Ruth Hub­bard (top left), the first tenured woman bi­ol­o­gist at Har­vard, fought against the idea that women’s bi­ol­ogy was in­fe­rior. Kather­ine Johnson (above) was one of the African-amer­i­can math­e­ma­ti­cians who worked at Nasa and about whom the film Hid­den Fig­ures was made. Pho­tos: Starr Ock­enga/sch­lesinger Li­brary, Rad­cliffe In­sti­tute, Har­vard Univer­sity & Nasa

Bias: Physi­cist Jess Wade (above left) doc­u­ments hun­dreds of women sci­en­tists on Wikipedia. Donna Strick­land (left) won a No­bel prize weeks af­ter a male sci­en­tist said women were in­nately in­ca­pable of be­ing sci­en­tists. Kim Tommy (above), of the Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence in Palaeo­sciences at Wits Univer­sity, de­cried the use of sci­ence as an op­pres­sive tool. Pho­tos: One for the Wall & Del­wyn Verasamy

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