Emasculating Men: Women's Access to Science

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.


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Yeah, this is why I sneer when people talk about how much men have to gain from feminism. Not in my field. There are a limited number of talk slots, and if I get one, someone else doesn't. Likewise job openings, grad school spots, you name it. Assuming the same number of men want to go into science, more women means more competition for limited spots. Maybe some men would choose other careers, but frankly, if you told me that I should do something else b/c the competition for jobs is too fierce, I'd be deeply offended. If I'm not thrilled about an alternate career, why would I assume that a man would be?
Of course, the difference between me and most men in science, is that when faced with increased competition, I focus on improving my performance, not denigrating my competitors or keeping secrets from them.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 06 Apr 2007 #permalink

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.

I've just recently started reading your blog, so do not have the book of readings but read the paper available online about computer science. It was striking how much of what was described in that paper was similar to my own experiences as a student in physics. Having worked in the software industry, I also have some impressions about those who've studied computer science.

Specifically, that hacker mentality is no guarantee that someone will be a good software engineer. A few are, many aren't. Some hackers are so caught up in the cool new coding thing that they really don't pay attention to the business problems to be solved.

This quote by the teacher was excellent: My point is that staying up all night doing something is a sign of single-mindedness and possibly immaturity as well as love for the subject. The girls may show their love for computers and computer science very differently. If you are looking for this type of obsessive behavior, then you are looking for a typically young, male behavior. While some girls will exhibit it, most won�t. But it doesn�t mean that they don�t love computer science!

People who are obsessive about one thing are not well-rounded, and that isn't the best skillset for accomplishing the many tasks we have, not just performing job duties, but communicating with others, understanding business problems, and training/mentoring newcomers.

So I would say that this thing that is viewed as a necessary orientation is really a very bad thing overall for the field.

In every science where the obsessive mentality is admired and entrenched in the university, the teachers who bring that to the table are bringing a very one-dimensional skillset to their efforts at passing on their knowledge, which takes us backwards rather than forwards in our efforts to educate.

One last thought, on the idea that women in the sciences are out of step on with women in the humanities and social sciences in their thinking about feminism. I don't know how it is today, but when I was in school, all the way along, I was pretty different from the girls around me because of my interests. So not only was being interested in science difficult from being an outsider among males, it made me an outsider among females too. So it doesn't surprise me that there is a gap between these groups. Perhaps women in the humanities and social sciences can think a bit on how to make more connections between groups of women with divergent interests.

I've really enjoyed this reading, and your comments on the other readings. Probably will have to get the books on the reading list myself. :)

While I am myself not in a scientific field (I'm a lawyer, formerly in criminal trial work), my field is also heavily dominated by a male bias. We had a lecture (one) during law school regarding this bias. Many of my classmates were angered that the professor (a woman, openly lesbian, openly identifies herself as subversive) suggested that the assumptions behind the current system were biased towards men and could be changed. I do not recall her advocating that they should be changed, immediately or otherwise; students were incensed at the concept that they could be changed at all.

To me, this underscores the points made by everyone above - many people [translation: men] practicing in the sciences don't even notice the biases inherent in the system. Even those that do expect women to conform to the system as it currently exists. They cannot even conceive of an alternate methodology. [pun intended]

Leornian makes some interesting comments about obsession, well-rounded skill sets, and communication. I am currently studying accounting. My professor is clearly both intelligent and familiar with his subject - and is completely unable to communicate even in his area of expertise. I cannot get a strait answer even when I use cross-examination techniques. I would say that the perceived feminine trait of communication skill might be of use to him.

I note that I merely scanned the readings. I'll have to get to them later.

By Cats are Snakes (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink


Regarding your professor, the question of the relative worth of pedagogy to research is interesting, but probably not related to male bias in academia, unless you're going to go out on a limb and hold that women are better teachers. Anecdotally, I've experienced what you've described from both male and female teachers, in about equal proportion.

I think there may be several components to the anger you observed. First of all, it's to be expected from interacting with a self-described subversive-- if folks are on board with your program, there's not much left to subvert, is there?

Second, we tend to be protective of institutions we've bought into, you've poured some portion of your soul into this work, and so, critiques of the basics of the field are going to be met with skepticism.

Taking science as an example, what exactly is the male-biased part that needs to be changed?

Environmental factors are a fine place to start. No pin-up girls in the office/sexual jokes, that sort of thing. Sure. Certainly lots of progress to made. I don't think you'll find many who argue that outright sexism is essential to science.

From where I stand as a grad-student, the tenure system might be a candidate. Most discussions I've seen admit that there may be more bad than good that comes with this system.
But, you'll find more resistance here. The academic freedom /political correctness type arguments hold some water.

What next? Peer-review, maybe? Here things start to get tricky. There are plenty of problems with peer-review (e.g. it's not really anonymous), but it's nearer the core of how scientific careers are made, today. Unless you've got a really good replacement up your sleeve, any suggestion that peer-review is flawed will probably receive a denial, or a 'it's the best we've got' response. Also, unless the criticism is carefully phrased, it could come across as a personal attack, since most/all scientists participate in this process.

How about the scientific method? For myself, any step towards more qualitative methods in say, psychology, is suspect. There's a reason we shouldn't do science by anecdote. This gets even closer to the heart of what I do every day, and suggestions that it's not the right way to do things, might reasonably provoke a hostile reaction. After all, in one fell swoop you'd be saying that what I've been doing for X-years is fundamentally flawed.

To be clear--
I'm not saying that the above are feminist criticisms of science. I'm just pointing out that criticisms of the 'system' should be very specific. And the more fundamental the criticism, the more resistance you'll face.