Friday Bookshelf: Women, Science, and Technology

What is this thing called feminist science studies?

Have you ever been asked that question, or perhaps asked it of yourself? You wanted a nice, short, pithy answer to hand over to your interlocutor. And yet, it's like being asked, what is this thing called science? The subject area is huge, the topics are diverse, the perspectives vary, contrasting and complementing one another. i-10f4369d417c17a5fb25d958b586164e-DSC00831.JPG

Well. I don't have that nice, short, pithy answer for you today, but I do have a very nifty book to recommend: Women, Science, and Technology: A Reader in Feminist Science Studies, edited by Mary Wyer, Mary Barbercheck, Donna Giesman, Hatice Orun Ozturk, and Marta Wayne.

A glimpse at the preface tells us something about why there's no short, pithy answer to our question: "Our topics blend research in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and engineering." The editors are, variously, an entomologist, a molecular biologist, a geneticist, an engineer, and a social scientist. Reading their description, in the preface, of how they came together, learned to talk across disciplinary boundaries, and found a group voice reminds me very much of the experience of my graduate feminist reading group.

If I were starting my Joy of Science course over again from scratch, I might think about going with this book instead of the Gender and Science Reader, though the two volumes actually complement each other, and there is little overlap. Women, Science, and Technology would probably be a better choice for an undergraduate course or those who have had no exposure at all to feminist science studies. The Gender and Science Reader is heavy on the dense theory - you know, the kind of stuff you can't easily bring yourself to contemplate in good summer weather. Best for graduate seminars and those already initiated into the fine disciplinary activities of using jargon and citing authorities**.

Women, Science, and Technology is divided into five sections, which the editors organized to focus attention on five major questions: "Who does science? How does culture shape science? How does science shape culture? Can we redefine and reform science to include feminist perspectives? How can feminist perspectives on science and technology improve the day-to-day lives of women (and men)?" Hmmm, those questions might be a nice pithy answer to the question of just what is feminist science studies - it is that which seeks to answer these questions (there may be others). The section titles are

  • High Hopes, Broken Promises, and Persistence: Educating Women For Scientific Careers
  • Science, Sex, and Stereotypes: Cultural Images of Science and Scientists
  • Constructing Gender, Constructing Science: How Ideas about Women and Men Shape Science and Technology
  • New Science, New Knowledge: Bringing Feminist Perspectives into Science and Technology Studies
  • Reproducible Insights: Women Creating Knowledge, Social Policy, and Change

Many classic essays are included in the volume, such as Banu Subramaniam's "Snow White and the Seven Detergents", Wenneras & Wold's "Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review", Carol Cohn's "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals", Helen Longino's "Can There Be a Feminist Science?", as well as contributions by Ruth Hubbard, Ruth Bleier, Evelyn Fox Keller, Judy Wajcman, Hilary Rose, Harriet Zuckerman, Margaret, who could resist Rachel Maines's "Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator"? There is also a piece by Cynthia Daniels, "Between Fathers and Fetuses: The Social Construction of Male Reproduction and the Politics of Fetal Harm" that must surely be an early version of some of the work that went into her later book, Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction.

But the essay I'd like to draw your attention to today is by one of the editors, Mary Barbercheck: "Mixed Messages: Men and Women in Advertisements in Science". Barbercheck analyzed advertisements in Science from January 1995 through December 1997. There were 141 issues, nineteen of which were special issues on women or people of color in science, or contained advertising supplements aimed at those groups. Nearly 27% of advertisements, or 1,094 total ads, had bodies or body parts that could be identified as male or female.

Here are some of her key findings:

  • African Americans were underrepresented (compared to percent of US population) in regular issues but not in special issues, while Asians were overrepresented in both types of issues.
  • Percentage of ads depicting multiple races jumped from 6.8% in regular issues to 41.2% in special issues.
  • Most of the change in race from regular to special issues was accounted for by a decrease in the percentage of ads depicting white women, while the percentage of ads depicting white men decreased only slightly.
  • Ads depicting multiple races very rarely showed men only, in either regular or special issues (Asian men and women were not depicted together in any ads.
  • The increase in depiction of African-Americans in special issues was due mainly to the increased representation of African-American women.

Barbercheck suggests, therefore, that the "most acceptable way to portray diversity under the current social system of science may be through an increase in images of women of color rather than through an increase in images of men of color...the general absence of racially diverse male-only images suggests that diversity itself is a gendered image." [emphasis added]

How 'bout that? Diversity has a gender, and it's female.

I think that's the finding that surprised me the most, but in hindsight, I should have seen it coming. How could diversity ever be masculine? Male is the norm. I think shoveling the women of color into the diversity ads helps keep them less threatening, too. It's just a bunch of women - nothing to get worried about.

Barbercheck goes on to analyze the stereotypical ways in which men are often depicted in the ads - as heroes, as nerds, and as "men at work and play". Women, it turns out, often appear in ads that prominently feature words like easy and simple, whereas men are depicted in ads with words like fast, accurate, and reliable. Women are more likely to be depicted as non-scientists - sometimes as decorations for scientific equipment, or even just as body parts - or to be portrayed as nurturing when depicted as scientists. A particularly annoying bit of gender stereotyping was a series of ads appearing only in special issues, showing a company's cleansers and cosmetics products, and suggesting that women would just love to come to that company and work on those woman-y products. (Because of course, we're all dying to make a better lipstick and something that will really get that oven clean!)

Women were also depicted in ways that aligned them with nature, most vividly in an ad in which a nude model has a model of the double helix and a map of Africa overlaid on her body. Barbercheck wryly notes, "These are all images representing the unknown, ripe for exploitation - Freud's dark continent." I'm trying to imagine a white man in the same pose as this model - arms raised, fingers loose, hands open, head gracefully tilted, back arched, sleepy eyes nearly shut, and a come-hither look upon his face while a diaphanous cloth silk-screened with a map of Africa plays across his naked body in an unseen breeze, and lastly, the double helix superimposed upon his profile. Wouldn't he be dreamy???? I know that would make me want to buy some 8-base cutters from New England Biolabs.

Why should we care, asks Barbercheck. The advertisers are reflecting societal attitudes, and their ads apparently sell their products. We can hope one day attitudes will change and ads like this won't appeal anymore. But Barbercheck notes that this kind of disparity in advertising is incongruent with AAAS's stated goals about diversity and gender equity.

Barbercheck wonders if the editors and advertisers think only women and people of color read the special issues. When I see the "special issues" of whatever magazine, and the diverse groups full of women start popping up in the ads, I often wonder: do the advertisers not think that women and people of color read the journal's regular issues? And that we can't see the difference in the ads? It's the same thing if you look at ads in SWE Magazine, or AWIS, or SHPE's magazine, only there you also have companies desperately proclaiming in their ads their years-long commitment to diversity. Come work for us, we've NEVER discriminated, we've ALWAYS loved women/blacks/Hispanics/others! I mean, I know we're all supposed to be dumb and incapable of doing math, but we aren't that dumb. Diversity is for the ghetto ads, the special issues, the woman-mags, the other-mags. Regular white boy science mags aren't in need of it. Don't need to toot the diversity-in-hiring horn in a place like Science because, really, who'd be reading that would care about that message?

Don't get me wrong - it is wonderful to see diversity in ads in special issues and society mags. It just would be nice if we could creep out of the "special" zone and into the regular arena.

Barbercheck's last message is that "there is more cultural content between the covers of Science that we would care to acknowledge". It would be interesting to repeat this study and see if there's been any substantive change in the last ten years. My gut feeling is not, but one never knows.

**In graduate school, I had a Matt Groenig cartoon taped above my desk that included a true-false quiz to see if you would make a good graduate student. Among the questions were "I like being a professor's slave" and "My idea of a good time is using jargon and citing authorities."


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Excellent review. I'll be checking this book out right away. I've been fascinated with this field ever since I read Hrdy's "The Woman That Never Evolved" and Schiebinger's "Nature's Body." I'll be keeping your blog in my top ten from now on.