Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1999

Too Much Scope Weakens Women in Science Book

Marilyn MacDonald

Has Feminism Changed Science?

Londa Schiebinger, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999; 252 pp; $27.95 US.
In this, her third book on women and science, Pennsylvania State University history of science Professor Londa Schiebinger has taken on an ambitious task, attempting to "evaluate current scholarship on gender and science in the United States, with occasional cross-cultural comparison."(p. 13)

Schiebinger joins a number of feminist scholars engaged in synthesizing the extensive literature on women and science. What distinguishes Schiebinger's work, for better and worse, is the scope of her approach, both in time and subject matter. Scanning more than 200 years of the development of modern science and feminism, Schiebinger draws on research and critiques from a number of disciplines.

She focuses her evaluation of feminism's impact on science on three sites -- the advancement of women in science careers, the restructuring towards inclusivity of the cultures of science, and the overhaul of the directions and priorities of science research. (p 13) Having taken only 195 pages, and cited about 250 items from the feminist literature, Schiebinger's support for her answer is interesting, but somewhat general and superficial.

The short answer to the question, "has feminism changed science?" appears to be "yes." More women are pursuing careers in science now than in the late 1700s, fewer institutions of science are explicitly discriminatory, and environmental and health sciences have increasingly higher priorities in national and industrial agendas. However, the longer answer is more complex.

In the first section of the text, "Women in science," Schiebinger traces early efforts to demonstrate that women always have done science, that women and men have equal capabilities for doing science, and that the creation of barriers to women's participation in science was wrong for a variety of reasons. She then summarizes a number of approaches to the quantification of women's progress in science.

However, such indicators have proven to be of mixed value. For example, Schiebinger notes that in the 1980s and 1990s, such statistics were summarized in the metaphor of the science pipeline. Entered at birth, leaked out from for a number of reasons, and plugged by a solder of educational fixes, the pipeline failed to account for the continued disappearance from science of women and minorities.

Feminists may have gained access for some women to university and to scientific careers, and succeeded in making overt discrimination problematic. However, such successes can still be reversed by the more systemic forms of discrimination.

In the second section, "Gender in the cultures of science," Schiebinger establishes links between present-day science cultures and those of the formative period of Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. For example, the late 1700s concept of sex complementarity effectively barred women from science, through a conceptualization of science as too physically and mentally demanding and competitive.

Both barrier and conceptualization have persisted, although evolved for the 1990s into the "teamspeak" of military and sports metaphors. Feminist efforts to change the cultures of science have met with mixed success, at least in part because the tautology of competitive meritocracy is so impermeable to evidence of its failures.

Finally, in the third section, "Gender in the substance of science," Schiebinger looks at particular disciplines (e.g. medicine, primatology, archaeology, biology, physics and mathematics). She discusses examples of bad science, flawed because of gender and race biases. From omission of women in clinical trials of new drugs, through failure to notice female primate behaviour, to desire to 'father the unthinkably' big science project, she argues that such biases affect which research questions are asked, what is considered as acceptable proof, and how long the self-corrective process of science takes to swing into action. The tools for gender analysis suggested by Schiebinger in her conclusion -- paying attention to priorities and outcomes, subjects chosen for study, institutional arrangements, cultures of science and domesticity, cultural rhetoric and theoretical frameworks -- have been proposed before to avoid some of these pitfalls. However, the incorporation of these tools into the normal practice of science have met with limited success (perhaps a topic worthy of further research).

In general, I am glad that Schiebinger has taken on this task. However, I think the most interesting questions raised by this text get lost in the shuffle. This happens for a number of reasons. First, the scope of the work is simply too large, in time period and in subject matter, for the size of the book. So, for example, important concepts such as "care-based knowing," "critical mass" of minorities, children's "scientist image," and sex-based "brain difference" are mentioned almost in passing (and not necessarily with the most current literature), leaving out substantive critiques from management theory, education, philosophy and psychology.

Second, there is a lack of clarity in the definitions of both feminism and science. Thus, feminism is defined (pp 3-5) as either liberal (i.e. levelling the scientific playing field) or cultural (i.e. valuing feminine attributes and incorporating them into science). These two definitions fail to do justice to the breadth of feminist critiques of science, and may well obscure the identification of ways in which feminism could change science.

Moreover, it is difficult to determine who falls within the category of "feminist" in the many examples given in the text. For example, I'm fairly sure that Mary Wollstonecraft would have been one, but "feminism" took on its sense of advocacy for women's rights about 100 years too late. I'm fairly sure Doreen Kimura is not, and simply passing on uncritiqued her theories about sex and science leaves open possibly erroneous attributions to feminism.

Science, undefined in the text, appears to wobble amongst three levels of meaning -- first, the process of producing bodies of knowledge through the use of scientific methods; second, the careers which result from doing that; and third, the economic and political institutions which have developed from early to modern and/or big science. It is often difficult to determine which aspect of science is being proposed as a target for feminist action.

Finally, the interesting questions get lost because the issue of causality is more often assumed than demonstrated. By the late 1800s, as "feminism" became associated with women's rights, scientists already had altered our understanding of the world in profound ways -- concepts of the very large (astronomy), the very small (chemistry), the very old (geology), the very diverse and inconstant (biology), and the very chancey (statistics) challenged the order of things. Scientists were making arguments about the inability of women and minorities to do science, but also about their abilities to do so.

Was that the result of feminism, or did both feminism and science change because of other factors? Have scientific explanations based on assumptions about gender changed because of feminism, or have feminists made progress as those descriptions have been proven through science?

In conclusion, Schiebinger has brought together a number of strands in feminist critiques of science, and has identified (but not necessarily proven) possible causal relationships between feminism, change and science in a number of disciplines. I think the chief value of Schiebinger's book is not that she has answered the question which she set, but that she has assembled an argument which in turn raises more questions, around which more extensive surveys of the literature, and more testable approaches might reasonably be expected to follow.

Dr. Marilyn MacDonald is a professor in the department of women's studies at Simon Fraser University, where she teaches and carries out research on women and science. Her background is in plant science, and science education.