This is the first 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 Ginorio, Marshall, & Breckinridge (GMB). (Summaries are available here.)
“Feminism is not a unitary concept”, Ginorio, Marshall, & Breckinridge (GMB) tell us. There have been many efforts to categorize different types of feminism. GMB refer to one of the most well-known, Alison Jaggar and Paula S. Rothenberg’s Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations Between Women and Men. Some of the different types of feminism that Jaggar and Rothenberg cover in their anthology include liberal feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism. This is not an exhaustive list. But for the purposes of this discussion I just want to focus on the idea that there are many types of feminism, with different theoretical frameworks.
In the humanities and social sciences, liberal feminism is considered to be a very early stage of feminism that has been left in the dust as we have moved on to more useful theoretical frameworks. In its preoccupation with things like equal opportunity, equal access to jobs and equal pay, liberal feminism is seen as “only” wanting to obtain the right for women to be just like men. Other theoretical frameworks are seen as offering more complete and accurate analyses of the causes of patriarchy and sexism. Consequently, better and more comprehensive strategies could be derived from them.
What does this mean for women in the sciences? GMB’s study of women in the sciences found 25% self-identified as feminists, and another 50% conditionally self-identified as feminists. The most commonly cited concern of these women, mentioned by nearly every single one of them, even those who did not self-identify as feminists, was access and equity for women in science. Changing science was mentioned by a small number of the women scientists in GMB’s study, but it was not a widely shared concern. This would seem to put women scientists firmly in the liberal feminist camp and thus out of step with their sisters in the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, most of the feminist analyses of science emerging from these fields give scant attention to access, and instead offer dense theoretical parsings of the patriarchal nature of Western science, and/or calls for radical transformation of the practice of science.
These calls for transformation are sometimes heard by women scientists (and others) as a suggestion that women will do science differently. When someone speaks about women doing science differently, it makes us uneasy, because we’ve been struggling so hard to prove we can do science just as well as – just like – men do. As GBM say:
…changes promoted by feminists are often seen as foregrounding a belief about “essential differences” against which women scientists have been fighting all their lives.
If you really pay attention to what feminist theorists are saying, you’ll see that they are clearly NOT arguing that women will do science differently because of their essential or innate natures. Rather, they argue for a consciously chosen approach to science grounded in a feminist theoretical framework that would transform the practice of science.
But daydreaming about the Revolution in science is a luxury few women scientists can afford. We’re still trying to get our damn feet in the door – which is not such a simple project. GBM state:
The emphasis on access and equity not only reflects the acceptance of liberal ideas but also is a statement about the main issue still for women scientists in this study…Access and equity are…tied to the goal of changing science in complex ways, and not only as presumed in liberal interpretations.
In what ways do access and equity go beyond a purely liberal concern with equal opportunity to link with the goal of changing science? GBM note that simply having more women in science increases the proof of women’s ability to do science. The weight of sheer numbers takes some of the weight off the shoulders of individual women to prove their worth, or to signify for all womanhood.
Furthermore, to actually increase the numbers of women in some fields requires that leaders change their beliefs about what competency looks like, who is qualified to do science, and how the discipline should be taught. Margolis, Fisher, & Miller (MFM) recount the various ways in which one specific male mode of relating to computers and computing comes to be seen as the norm. The culture of computer science glorifies hackers, and promotes their obsessive love of computing for computing’s sake not just as the norm, but as the necessary orientation to the field. Women, with their interest in how computing may be integrated into medicine, the arts, or other disciplines, are seen as less serious, and their interest is suspect.*** Increasing the percentage of women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon required several cultural changes: educating high school teachers about how to identify young women interested in computers; promoting a more expansive departmental culture; and providing multiple entry points into the discipline. Access here is much more than a liberal issue.
Nearly all the women in the study reported being taunted by their male classmates that they only got in to computer science at Carnegie Mellon because they were a girl. Thus, the men demarcate the environment as belonging to them in two ways: first, by defining their mode of behavior and orientation to the field as the norm, and second, by explicitly informing the women that their presence is an anomaly and cannot possibly be due to their own competence. Misogynistic behavior like this serves to police the boundaries of science and technology, reminding women that they are trespassing on men’s turf, and reinscribing the masculine onto domains that are not inherently gendered. There is nothing about computer science that is inherently masculine. It is only coded so by the actions and words of individuals.
By now you have probably read about the death threats blogger Kathy Sierra received. If by some chance you have not, Dr. Free-Ride has a comprehensive collection of links and a very thoughtful post on this horrific incident over at Adventures in Ethics and Science. Dr. Free-Ride discusses this incident from the point of view of free speech issues and the ethics regarding discourse in the blogosphere if we say we believe in the free exchange of ideas.
Sometimes, though, you might just be bothered that the other person is having a say. Shouting someone down because (say) she’s a woman, or reminding her that she’s just the sum of her (sexually desirable or undesirable) parts as far as you’re concerned, is not only a way to avoid dealing with the substance of what she’s saying, but is also a way to try to undercut her authority or silence her. If you’re officially in support of “free exchange of ideas”, you might want to rethink this strategy.
Shouting someone down because she’s a woman, or reminding her that she’s just the sum of her sexual parts is not just a way to silence one particular woman. Such behavior delivers a message to all women that this space is controlled by men and women are not welcome. The death threats against Sierra are a personal threat, but they are also a broader act of terror against all women in the online community. What happened to Sierra could happen to any one of us.
The Sierra incident reminds us how unwelcome women remain in science and technology. Our presence is disturbing enough to cause your average decent undergraduate to taunt us and engage in other sorts of harassing behavior. Men who presumably love their wives and daughters will nevertheless break federal law and engage in blatant discrimination when confronted with a pregnant woman scientist. Men will meet in secret to avoid sharing information and power with even a token female.
Men guard the borders against the encroachment of women so fiercely because, as Female Science Professor’s young colleague let slip, they fear our presence will emasculate them. The issue of access – true, full access – to science and engineering is, at its root, completely radical. For women to have equal access, men will have to surrender their notion of science as a men’s club; they will have to yield power and control. Women cannot enter the door in equal numbers and leave the landscape unchanged. Men know this. That’s why the resistance is so strong.
***Most, but not all, of the men in the study displayed the hacker orientation towards computers. 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.