Friday Bookshelf: Women in Science: Meeting Career Challenges

I'm going to cheat a little on this week's Friday Bookshelf. Women in Science: Meeting Career Challenges is a book I have reviewed in the past for NWSA Journal (vol. 12, no. 3, 2000). So I'm going to quote my own review. My review was originally combined with a review of a film about women scientists called Asking Different Questions: Women and Science. To understand the end of this review, you need to know something from that film. One of the scientists, Ursula Franklin, offers a metaphor of women as earthworms working to prepare the soil for a better way of doing science. She says, "Only when these two are together - the real new thoughts and the well-prepared soil - [then] social change will come."

Regarding the Women in Science book: it collects essays from 21 women scientists and engineers, 3 women in science program administrators, and a professor of history. The editor, Angela Pattatucci, who is also a scientist, weaves a lengthy contribution from herself around these individual essays, commenting on and interpreting them. Now I begin quoting my review...

The personal stories of obstacles and barriers to careers, and the often creative strategies contributors evolved in response to these challenges, are a compelling contribution to the literature on gender and science. If Pattatucci had used her extensive contribution as editor to connect and relate these stories to feminist analyses of science, this would have been a powerful book. Unfortunately, what she offers is a hazy, self-referential analysis that studiously avoids engagement with any feminist critiques, and that is often self-contradictory in its recommendations. Programs for young girls and the focus on critical mass are of no help [pp 10-11]. However, a network of support at the school and community levels, and the presence of role models, are important. [pp 22, 71-72].

As I read this book, I wondered why Pattatucci writes as if she's in a vacuum, the heroic lone critic. She actually says that "no one has...bothered to ask women" what they think. [p 5] The answer may lie in her descriptions of her encounters with feminism, in which she felt rejected because she was a scientist. If a woman comes to feminism after having learned to think of herself as a scientists, she may face a crisis of self-identity. What she learns through the lens of feminist critique about how science operates challenges much of what she has been taught to revere and to seek identification with (though it is never completely granted to anyone female). To resolve the crisis one must either reject feminism or transform one's relationship with science. But if the latter is chosen, one's identity as a scientist must also undergo a transformation. It is possible to be a scientist and a feminist, but one is rarely the same type of scientist one was before feminism. One may, in fact, become the kind of scientist who asks different questions. However, Pattatucci wants to make a systemic indictment of the ills visited upon women in science without indicting the system of science itself.

The historian Noretta Koertge's essay is a particularly dismaying part of the critique that will not criticize the power structure. Koertge asserts that women scientists are " seek out women research directors...[or to network] with other women" [p. 201] and that confronting the "chilly climate" or investigating sexual harassment allegations is "counterproductive for women" [p. 200]. She also claims that since "scientific credit is to be awarded strictly on merit...women's best strategy is to call on honor their own most fundamental values." [p. 202] Koertge's essay displays a serious disconnection with and inattention to the volume's other contributors, who recount their repeated experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination, describe how their work was blocked, belittled, dismissed, and/or stolen by male colleagues, discuss the pain and loneliness of being one of very few women in their departments and classes, and enumerate the extensive cost in personal pain and careers derailed or abandoned as a result of all these things. Koertge also claims, through a bewildering misrepresentation of the work of Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, among others, that feminists are largely responsible for the low percentage of women in science at present. Even if the works of Harding, Longino, and other feminist analysts of science did actually make the claim, as Koertge asserts, that science is no place for women in general and feminist women in particular, it would still be quite a stretch to accord them the degree of influence over women considering careers in science that Koertge does. Mention Harding and Longino to most undergraduate students in science and engineering, let alone high school students, and you will be met with blank stares. I have yet to hear from any young woman that Sandra Harding drove her from the lab, though I have heard from many that hostile environments and the lack of women role models make it difficult or impossible for them to stay there.

Yet the book should be read. Read it for the voices of the women scientists. Read about Project WISE at Dartmouth, a retention program for undergraduate women, and the complex reactions they have to it, as set forth in the complementary essays by two students who have participated in it. Read Sue Nokes' tale of what a truly supportive and collaborative relationship can do for a woman's career. Read, and weep, over Molly Gleiser's story of the glass wall, that finally drove her away from the lab. Read, ask different questions, and keep working at the soil.

The issue in which this review appeared was a special issue entitled "The Science and Politics of the Search for Sex Differences" and is worth looking up if you have access to a university library that subscribes to NWSA Journal or can get it through inter-library loan. You can find the table of contents and article abstracts here. If you have access to Project MUSE, you can get the articles online. Here's a particularly intriguing one:

"There is no Unauthorized Breeding in Jurassic Park": Gender and the Uses of Genetics by Laura Briggs and Jodi I. Kelber-Kaye

ABSTRACT: This article relies on close readings of Jurassic Park (the book and the film) and Gattaca (film) to argue that a great deal of the opposition to new genetic technologies expressed in contemporary popular culture is grounded in a profound anti-feminism. Both of these science fiction stories suggest that genetic manipulation is "unnatural," and call for a return to a romanticized "natural" motherhood. In Jurassic Park, genetic science is figured as a threat to the white nuclear family, producing "Third World" female dinosaurs whose reproduction cannot be stopped, whose existence threatens white American children. Gattaca aligns the "unnaturalness" of genetically modified offspring with homosexuality and communism, and calls for the return of democracy, individual striving, and motherhood. Together, the article argues, these two texts suggest some of the pitfalls for feminism in contemporary discussions of reproductive technology and genetic determinism.

I don't know how I overlooked this article but I think I'm going to sit down and read it this weekend.

More like this

Koertge also claims, through a bewildering misrepresentation of the work of Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, among others, that feminists are largely responsible for the low percentage of women in science at present.

This is especially interesting to me because if I never was a feminist, I wouldn't be in science right now. I doubt I'm alone in this.

Koertge also claims, through a bewildering misrepresentation of the work of Sandra Harding and Helen Longino, among others, that feminists are largely responsible for the low percentage of women in science at present.

Jeez, it couldn't be all the sexual harrasment and gender discrimination wrought by the males in the sciences that drives women from the has to be the fault those goddamned feminists. They are responsible for most societal ills, don't you know.

Fer chrissakes, if feminists actually had that kind of power to affect widespread endemic societal change, we wouldn't even be talking here about a book called "Women in Science: Meeting Career Challenges".