Science and Gender

Sunday, November 27, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Is It

What does gender have to do with science? The obvious answer is ‘nothing.’ Science is the epitome of an objective, rational, and disinterested enterprise. But given the history of systemic under-representation of women in science, what does it mean that science answers almost exclusively to the methodologies of men? Has male domination contributed certain unfounded assumptions or cognitive biases to the ‘objectivity’ of scientific inquiry? Is there any possibility of achieving a gender-neutral science, and if so, what would that look like? John and Ken make room at the table for Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger, author of Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering.

Listening Notes

John opens the show by talking about the way that science used to be an all-boys club of sorts. In the 1980s, says John, when students were asked to draw what they believed a scientist looked like, 45% drew a person with facial hair and 25% drew a person holding a pocket-projector (a predominantly male item), among other male characteristics. Only 8% of students drew a woman. Ken tells John he recently read an article written by one of the first two women to earn an undergraduate degree in Physics from Yale University – something which did not occur until 1978. John is optimistic that the gender equality issue has improved – now, when asked to draw a scientist, 33% of students draw a woman. Ken supports John by mentioning that nowadays a greater number of women is earning PhDs in scientific fields, and in some areas there are more women than men earning said degrees. John mentions that there are still areas in which men have greater representation, and Ken adds that there are also more men who tend to have successful careers in science than women. John and Ken also talk about the speech given by Larry Summers at Harvard as potentially sexist, and Ken wonders if the role of sexism has actually lessened, but John explains why he thinks it has only become more “underground.”

Ken and John are joined by guest Londa Schiebinger, Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Gender Innovations: How Does Gender Analysis Contribute to Science? John asks Londa which came first: her fascination with science, her interest in gender equity, or whether the two came hand in hand. Londa explains that during her time at Harvard University there were no women professors. After the first year, Londa was the only woman graduate student in the university. At that point she became interested in the intellectual issues surrounding gender inequalities. At MIT, she heard women scientists telling the same story of [] and realized she could contribute in this area. John explains his belief that science, taken as it should be, is gender-neutral, that objectivity and rationality have nothing to do with gender. He adds that, however, other people think science is explicitly or implicitly deeply gendered. Londa recognizes the previously posed examples of gender bias in science and provides one of her own regarding Google Translate’s male default.

Ken asks Londa what she makes of the disparity of gender across different disciplines, where in some women earn PhDs and in some they are grossly underrepresented. Londa brings up the idea of stereotypes and talks about the importance of impressions on young children as factors leading to this disparity. The mini-messages present in our culture are certainly factors, Londa explains, and she provides an example of a model she finds is counterproductive to equality – Barbie and her first words, which were “math class is tough!” Ken then gives Londa the chance to opine on the Larry Summers speech and asks her whether there is something in the human mind that draws men to certain disciplines and women to others. Londa says that even if men and women do have differently wired brains – and better yet – all should be represented in science so we can perceive all aspects of reality.

Ken and John welcome audience participation. One audience member wonders how more women can be encouraged to participate in scientific fields, and Londa speaks about the Gendered Innovations program, which is working to ensure that gender is represented in the school curriculum. Other questions that are brought up regard whether women have a different approach to their personal interactions – for example, whether they are more nurturing and thus make better mentors – geographic bias, minorities of men in certain fields like nursing or childcare, and the views of the younger generation on the issue of gender bias. Londa concludes by reinstating the importance of education and including gender topics in general school curriculums, not only in separate courses.  

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:25): Caitlin Esch talks to women scientists about the biases they face in their daily work lives. Gender bias can be subtle or overt, as isolated examples provided by Jennifer Raymond, a neuroscientist at Stanford, and by MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins illustrate. Caitlin also speaks to Corine Moss-Racussin, who explains a study conducted by Skidmore College about unconscious bias.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:48): Ian Shoales discusses the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, how the CEO “has it all,” and wonders how she achieved her success. Feminist philosophy, male privilege (or disadvantage if women really do have it all), and whether men and women really equal make up his report.