This is the second of several discussion posts for Week 3 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on Joy of Science in the Category section.
This post deals with the readings by Margolis, Fisher, & Miller (MFM), and Hynes. (Summaries are available here.)
Why might women want to become scientists or engineers? Do their motivations and interest differ from that of men? If so, is the difference in intensity or in kind?
In the two papers by Hynes and by MFM, we read about women’s early interest in science and computing, and about what factors contribute to extinguish that interest. MFM report women’s early enthusiasm for computing and the possibilities of integrating it into medicine, the arts, and other fields. Hynes describes the excitement and “passionate reason” that initially drew her and her colleagues into the study of science. Yet all these women experience loss of interest and excitement – whether at the undergraduate level, as in the MFM study, or in their graduate and postgraduate study, as in Hynes’s paper.
Both of these papers suggest that women are likely to have a different type of interest in, and orientation to, science than men do.*** Furthermore, this difference from the norm is problematic, and their awareness of it can cause them to modify their behavior. In the case of the undergraduate women in computer science in the MFM paper, they may come to feel that their difference means that they are not qualified for the field, and this lessens their interest. They question their commitment in light of their waning interest. Subsequently they decide to leave the major. Some few of them will decide that they can tolerate being different and will stick it out.
In the case of graduate and postgraduate study that Hynes describes, continuing and succeeding requires that women adapt more and more to the norm of behavior, which means subduing passion and curtailing wide-ranging interests. Ultimately she and her colleagues felt they had reached a point where they had forgotten the excitement that once drew them to study science. Hynes says:
It was…the erosion of intellectual passion that I found to be the most appalling in science. I was, and I remain, confounded by the contradiction that the more advanced our study of science, the more remote becomes the subject of our intellectual passion: nature. It is absurd that field trips in botany courses for nonscience majors and lectures in “physics for poets”…conjure up the dynamism, the variability, and the intelligence of nature, whereas fluid mechanics and advanced thermodynamics are arduous, mechanistic, and often spiritually dulling exercises in rote problem solving…Patriarchal science has no passion. It has fractured passion into a chilling logic and pseudo-passion.
Pseudo-passion, Hynes says, thrives on competition and the thrill of “inclusion in the high priesthood of science”. Hynes connects the erasure of women from science – historically, and in the present by promoting the myth that women cannot do science and math – to the erasure of passion from science. By talking with each other, sharing our ideas and interests with each other, Hynes says we can rekindle our passion for science and remind ourselves of all the many things we used to be curious about. We can rediscover the passionate reason that drew us to science.
MFM recommend ways to broaden the culture of computer science that would promote women’s interest and passion for integrating computer science with other fields of study. Creating a climate that supports women’s broader interests would actually benefit the field.
In the MFM study, the young men speak of “falling in love” with the computer and developing a relationship with it in ways that women do not. This reminds me in part of the quote from Bronowski that I cited early on in this course. Bronowski speaks of the pleasure that is aroused within the scientist by the handling of the tools of science. Women experience this pleasure, too; they talked to MFM about the “rush in having my program run”. But it was consistently the connection of computer science to other fields, its use, the context in which it existed, that made computer science relevant and interesting to the young women. For the young men, the computer itself was an “ultimate toy” and was means and end in itself.
Hynes suggests that getting lost in this sort of pleasure with a disconnected, decontextualized object leads to or is itself a symptom of the problems of patriarchal science. She might well label the obsessive love the hacker has for his computer as a form of pseudo-passion. Pseudo-passion is what leads men to describe the site of the first atomic bomb explosion as “romantic”. Hynes says we need to keep our passions connected to nature and the world around us.
What drew you to science? Do you feel the same type of passion and curiosity you did in the past? What feeds or kills your passion for science? What do you think of Hynes’s concept of “passionate reason” as opposed to “pseudo-passion”? Talk to me.
***Differences between men and women are not attributed by MFM to innate differences. They describe cultural influences that account for the differing orientations men and women display towards computer science. There is more detail on this issue in the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, by Margolis & Fisher. Hynes is not explicit, but I suspect she would also attribute the differences to culture and not nature.