Today I will be talking to you a little bit about my zine series – scigrrrl, which covers any thing under the umbrella of feminist science studies.
So what is this feminist science studies thing?
As a double major, I often get asked how my interests in feminist theory and science overlap. To me it seems rather obvious, but others do not seem to quite see the connection between the two. As noted by Deebolena Roy: “For many individuals, the mere idea of mixing feminism and science together sets well – established modes of reasoning (perhaps even gravity) into topsy-turvy motion” (Roy 2001: 233). However, when we closely examine the goals of feminism, we see how the two studies fit hand in hand with one another.
Feminist scholars, across disciplines, have made an effort to study and understand systems that perpetuate subordination and marginalization. In doing so, feminists hope to diminish differences between genders, as well as other marginalized groups, and to establish equality across all groups. As noted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities: “In applying feminist analyses to scientific ideas and practices, feminism sees science, like all spheres of intellectual activity, as conditioned by historical circumstances, societal beliefs, and accepted norms” (AAC&U, 1999: 3). In other words, feminism examines how cultural norms and stereotypes translates and contributes to our own scientific thinking and practices.
There are two major branches of feminist science studies that I examined over the course of this year – equity and content.
The content branch offers critiques of science and challenges the popular belief that science is objective. By doing so it aims to insert alternative perspectives into the field to help formulate a fuller and more accurate knowledge.
Raise your hand if one of these images looks like the scientist you imagined.
Now how many imagined someone who looks like me…that what I thought.
You’re not alone – in fact, when elementary aged students are asked to draw a scientist (820 girls and 699 boys) to draw a scientist – less than 9% of the students drew a female scientist (Giese 2009).
In addition, those who draw a female scientist, tended to draw them looking “severe” or “unhappy” (LiveScience 2007). We In sum, the perception we all tend to have is that there are more men in the sciences, thus science is a masculine domain, and when there are women in science, they are unhappy.
While all of these factors that help shape our schemas and expectations seem to be inconsequential, evidence shows they may actually affect our performance, intellectual development, and self-concept. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) conducted a study in which teachers were told that certain students were “bloomers” (expected to achieve greater academic success during the school year). The students randomly assigned to the “bloomers” group had increased performances compared to those who were not by the end of the school year. Cultural media that diminishes women’s visibility in the sciences and “scientific” studies that demonstrate “innate” differences act to establish expectations that men are “bloomers” and women are not when it comes to mathematics and science. In fact, parents, who serve similar roles as teachers, tend to believe that their sons will have higher mathematical achievement than their daughters, regardless of the child’s actual abilities (Halpern et al. 2007). Furthermore, teachers tend to spend more time interacting with boys than girls in science and math classes (LiveScience 2007). These discrepancies actively discourage girls, who may have previously been interested in the sciences, from developing their mathematic and science skills further and foster the exclusion of women from the science.
In this context, the decline of a girl’s interest in science throughout her development makes sense. In elementary school, girls are just as interested in math and science as boys are, however after learning the schemas that we are familiar with of scientists and women in science, they begin to lose interest. By 8th grade, in fact, boys are 2x as likely to be interested in math and science than girls. Overall, it becomes evident how our schemas and expectations work as systematic axes of oppression to facilitate the constant the leak from the pipeline.
The pipeline is at its leakiest however during our four short years of undergrad. While there are about the same number of students who pursue science related degrees during their undergraduate careers, female students are less likely to go on to pursue a career in science and other STEM fields. Systems of overt and covert discrimination cause women to leak out of the pipe for a multitude of reasons during undergrad.
Many female students who decide to pursue a science major, particularly physics or math, may find themselves in positions where they are the only female student in their class, which can be discouraging (AAC&U 1999). A female physics major noted: “The boys in my group don’t take anything I say seriously” (Pollack 2013). Other personal accounts from women who were one of the only female majors in undergrad within my online women in science community seem to show similar trends: these women all tend to report feeling excluded from male study groups on the basis of their sex, feeling as though their male peers devalue their potential intellectual contributions, and often contemplate switching majors as a result.
Covert forms of discrimination, which are hard to uncover, may also prevent women from pursuing science after graduation. A recent NPR broadcast highlighted differences in informal mentoring during college years (Vendantam 2014). The study mentioned in the broadcast sent over 6,500 emails to faculty at 250 top institutions across the country pretending to be students – every email was exactly identical with the exception of the name (the name was either male or female, white or nonwhite). Across disciplines, they found that professors responded to emails with white male names more than they responded to emails with either white female names or with nonwhite names. This finding is particularly troubling as informal mentoring is incredibly important for later success – through informal mentoring students often gain insights into the field as well as access to summer internships and other opportunities that may give them an advantage over their peers.
Lack of informal mentoring and encouragement also leads women to not pursue careers in the sciences despite high levels of academic achievement. Eileen Pollack reflected on her time as an undergraduate physics major, noting that even though she was a summa cum laude, “I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school” (2013). As such, despite demonstrated capabilities, women are still discouraged from entering the sciences.
Reflecting on my own undergraduate experiences, I came to realize that I too have fallen victim to forms of covert sexism. In the laboratory setting I have been mistakenly called a name other than my own repeatedly (even after I corrected the professor more than once) and have been discredited for work that I largely contributed to. I have also been denied informal mentoring. While I am sure that all of these incidents were not intentional, it provides evidence of how people who may not be sexist work to perpetuate systems of sexism that have historically excluded women from the field.
Sex based discrimination also exists in the job evaluation and hiring process after graduation as well. Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) asked 127 college professors to evaluate a resume for a position as a research assistant. The resumes given to the professors were all identical with the exception of the name listed at the top of the page, which was either Jennifer or John. Overall, professors evaluated the John as being more competent than Jennifer and tended to offer her a lower salary (about $4,000 less) than John. Interestingly, all of the professors included in the study (both male and female) also reported not holding any biases against women despite the results. More recent studies have replicated these results (Pollack 2013). These covert forms of discrimination that occur shortly after graduation impede women from being able to continue a career in the sciences.
For my zine series, I specifically examined the number of female professors at top universities and colleges in comparison to that of men
While the number vary per institution, overall female professors only account for 10% of all of those in the sciences (Wiley 2009).
When we look closer at these positions we see that women are less likely “to obtain tenure (29% of women compared to 58% of men in full-time, ranked academic positions at 4-year colleges) and are less likely to achieve the rank of full professor (23% of women compared to 50% of men)” (Halpern et al. 2007). These stats were alarming to me – why were they so drastic?
In 1979, the gender gap was thought to be due to women’s self-selection out of the field – namely, deciding to choose an alternative career or leave the field (Wiley 2009). The idea of women’s self-selection out of the sciences was challenged by feminists who illuminated the idea that “women in science might be facing a persistent pattern of underestimation and marginalization, such that the “rate of exchange” by which they build research careers and reputations was different than for comparably trained and situated men “(Rossiter 1981: 101 as cited by Wiley 2009). The feminist perspective was found to be more accurate than the previous reasoning: While some women may choose to leave the field, most are not self-selecting out of the field but are rather institutionally selection out.
One major way women are being selected out of the sciences is the differential treatment they receive after having a child: while “[h]aving children is a career advantage for men; for women, it is a career killer” (Mason 2014). Women who have children tend to fare worse than women without children, and men with or without children (Ceci and Williams, 2010). But why do men fare just as well with and without children? Why is this difference only observed within females?
The “baby factor” also accounts for why there are fewer women in higher-ranking positions in the sciences. Stephan Brush, a professor of history of science at University of Maryland, noted:
“By the time a woman lands an assistant professorship, she is likely to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She then has five or six years to turn out enough first-rate publications to gain tenure. If she has children, she must fulfill her family obligations while competing against other scientists who work at least sixty hours a week. If she postpones childbearing, the biological clock will run out at about the same time as the tenure clock” (MyGrayne 1993: 407)
Another reason women are leaning out of the sciences opposed to leaning in, is simply due to sexism within the field. In 1999, MIT did an internal review of discrepancies between their male and female science faculty. The review found differences, all of which were in favor of men, in salary, merit increments, institutional responses to external job offers, internal support for research, allocation of office and lab space, service expectations, teaching assignments. In addition, one the professors who initiated the study stated that in addition to the studies findings, she found that “even when women win the Nobel Prize, someone is bound to tell me they did not deserve it, or the discovery was really made by a man, or the important result was made by a man, or the woman really isn’t that smart. This is what discrimination looks like in 2011” (Pollack 2013). While these differences may appear to be small, over a long period of time, they create a substantial difference between male and female scientists were women do not really stand a chance.
The real solution to making the field more equitable is to shift the focus from fixing the women who leave STEM fields, to fixing the pipeline itself. In order to start to fix the pipeline, we need to reconstruct harmful schemas and expectations that are learned early on. In other words, the main issue is that “women [don’t] become scientists because science — and scientists — [are coded as being] male” (Pollack 2013). Including more bibliographies of women in texts, mentioning famous women in science classrooms in addition to the men, and creating programming that features happy and successful women scientists would work to help deconstruct predominant schemas and expectations of science and women in science.
Currently, there is a large initiative to increase the visibility of women in science. One way many have done so is by creating science programs explicitly for girls, like Girls who Code (or other publications like my zine series :p). Not only do these programs increase the visibility of women in science, but also work to develop girls’ early visuospatial and quantitative skills. Science and engineering toys – like GoldieBlox – also work to encourage girls to pursue science and develop these same skills.
Another method of fixing the pipeline is by creating networks of women in science. One program, Cybermentor, networks young girls with women in the field (Panek 2014). Connecting women in science to young girls interested in science provides the next generation with access to informal mentoring. As mentioned previously, informal mentoring gives students an advantage in the field. In addition, there are many informal support networks that connect women in science with others like them in the field. For example, I belong to a wonderful network of women in science on Tumblr: using a blog format, we share our experiences with one another and offer advice. This support has helped me to feel secure as a woman in science.