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Science and Sexism

Joan Mason

Has Feminism Changed Science? Londa Schiebinger. 252 pp. Harvard University Press, 1999. $27.95.

Londa Schiebinger's new book asks a tricky question; her earlier books pursued more scholarly themes. The Mind Has No Sex? (1989) searched for women in the origins of modern science and discovered an assortment of categories—aristocrats, artisans, astronomers. Or a gamut from A to A, as Dorothy Parker would have said. Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (1993) found examples from the bizarre to the comical and insights as women colonized the life sciences. Her new book updates her themes and discusses how to improve the cultures of science to include women.

I confess that as a chemist, I couldn't see what my feminist friends meant by women needing to change science. How was I to feminize the Periodic Table? Changing the culture, fine, if you know where to begin. Scientists compete for attention, for pride of place and for resources. People use the weapons at hand, and women are easy losers in the competition for publication, grants, advancement. The higher the stakes, the fiercer the competition. Recent revelations at MIT strike a chord that resonates in Cambridge, United Kingdom, where women are 13.5 percent of tenured staff overall, only 2 percent in chemistry but 40 percent of research staff on fixed-term contracts, the casual laborers of science.

Schiebinger's strongest case for feminism's having changed science is in the human and proto-human sciences: anthropology, archaeology, primatology. Women are still fighting for their place in physics: Those gender wars were graphically described by Margaret Wertheim in Pythagoras' Trousers (1997). Schiebinger notes that the "hardness" of a science correlates with prestige and negatively with the proportion of women in the field.

In conclusion, at the gallop, she discusses "feminist science" as defined by sociologists, gender analysis in life sciences and the "site visits" initiated by Millie Dresselhaus and others, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, to improve the "chilly climate" found in physics departments. Gender analysis of the practice of science, as well as its content, is penetrating a variety of fields in the United States. Institutional arrangements are questioned and are beginning to improve. Schiebinger scampers quickly through some large questions: cultures of science and domesticity, language coding, philosophical frames, definitions of science, government action, science and culture.

One can supply an appendix to show how feminists have changed the practice of American science and how other countries are following suit. The Association for Women in Science, founded in 1971, lobbied in Congress with its allies for an act on Equal Opportunities for Women and Minorities in Science and Technology. Congress instructed the NSF to monitor progress, publishing statistics biennially and to mount an affirmative action program for women, currently POWRE, Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education, with awards from NSF and NIH for career development. Congress recently passed the Commission on the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Development Act, widening the scope of the legislation.

Other countries follow slowly. In the U.K., the Office of Science and Technology set up an independent committee of women scientists and engineers to produce a report in 1994, The Rising Tide. In response, the OST set up a small unit, Promoting SET for Women, which does what it can; but U.K. equal-opportunity legislation, which needs updating, disallows affirmative action that "discriminates against men."

Now the European Commission is flexing its muscles: A system called Gender Watch will monitor and redress the gender balance in research, gender indicators are to be used throughout the member states, and legislation will be developed to make the gathering of gender statistics compulsory. Slowly, feminism is changing science.—Joan Mason, History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University

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