Women in science, and science studies

I know that it is a little bit tone-deaf for a man such as myself to opine on topics like this, but I really would like to express myself and I hope it is not interpreted as mansplaining. I just finished reading an article on The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Constellations are Sexist.” The article itself was more or less forgettable clickbait, but it raised a number of issues that made me want to formulate my thoughts and respond. The article, linked here, correctly points out misogynistic and sexist aspects of Greek mythology, the historical scientific establishment that excluded and minimized the accomplishments of female astronomers, and the macho culture of space exploration. Unfortunately, it does so in a superficial, flippant way that makes some sweeping claims, claims which were immediately pounced upon by all kinds of trolls, but also more legitimate members of the internet commentariat. With regard to the article itself, there are two main points that I want to bring up: first, my personal experience as a card-carrying member of the (male-dominated, and particularly white-male-dominated) scientific establishment, and second, my opinion on science studies and the humanistic critique of the scientific enterprise.

My personal experience as a scientist: I work as a scientist and collaborate every day with brilliant people—currently most of my collaborators happen to be women. I am grateful to be part of a culture that acknowledges and values contributions from both women and men. I can really only speak specifically about ecologists; I don’t know the situation in the physical sciences that well. It’s too bad that ecologists are not a more racially diverse group, but I hope that will change with time. However, I have personally experienced the darker side of the “collegiality” of academic culture: male scientists who exploit power dynamics, especially over women, for their own gain. Worse yet, supervisors often turned a blind eye to what these men were doing until things got too serious to ignore, and women’s voices often weren’t heard. I would also say that while the machismo culture of ecology is (luckily) not quite to the level of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, it certainly is something I’ve noticed, especially when it comes to outdoing one another in fieldwork, or even one-upmanship about putting in long hours at the office. So, I certainly have empathy for those who critique the scientific establishment as being harmful to women. In my perspective, things are slowly improving, but a lot of issues still need to be addressed.

However, talking about flaws in the way the scientific establishment treats women and other groups outside of the inner circle of power brings me to another point, the humanistic critique of the enterprise of science. I will issue a disclaimer that I haven’t read most of the primary literature in this field, but lately I have read some about it, and have been thinking about it from the perspective of a scientist. The author of the piece on the sexism of the constellations is very invested in this critique, constantly pointing out in that piece and in other pieces (see her website) that science isn’t necessarily objective, tied up as it is with power dynamics of the society that creates it. (She is especially interested in gender dynamics but that point could easily apply to other types of power dynamic.) I agree with this point, and I would say that a rigid view of science as always shining the harsh light of truth and objectivity upon nature is a false and probably harmful view. After all, who can reasonably deny that science and technology have expedited the gutting and destruction of the environment, and have been a vehicle for capitalists to make off with boatloads of money at the expense of marginalized groups? However, I think the obsession with critiquing the practice of science can go too far. For one thing, it can be, and has been, used as ammunition by people with a vested interest in undermining science, such as evolution and climate change deniers. For another thing, the obsession with critiquing downplays the wonderful accomplishments that women scientists have made and are making. For example, the article about sexism in the constellations only mentioned two female scientists/engineers. One was an 18th-19th-century female astronomer (now largely forgotten, but what casual science fan can name any 18th-century astronomers of any description?). The other was in a derisive footnote that a female “Mission Operations Manager” for NASA is nicknamed “MOM,” which I don’t really think smacks of misogyny. I generally see the validity of the postmodern critique, but when it is delivered in such an echo chamber, stripped of any dialogue with currently practicing scientists, women or men, it’s pretty useless.

I would like to end by saying that I deeply admire the women scientists I know, and that I think my field of ecology, and the sciences in general, would benefit from two things. First, white men need to relinquish some of their grip on the power structure to allow greater diversity in identities and modes of thinking. Second, there does need to be an improved dialogue with the humanities and with science studies. When we step outside our narrow focus and think about the paradigms within which we operate, it can really lead to great insights. As it stands now, a critique of science by the humanities can’t be effective unless scientists both are aware of it and know what can be done to improve the way science is done. That requires positive suggestions in addition to negative criticism. As I’ve said in previous entries on this blog, a little humility, open-mindedness, and compassion (not the most macho of traits) can go a long way!



2 thoughts on “Women in science, and science studies

    • Yes, that’s really interesting! I hadn’t made the connection in my mind between the academic criticism of science as a biased activity and the current controversies about p-hacking and things like that. But it seems really obvious now in hindsight. Anyway, the other cool thing I got out of that article was a recommendation for a card game called “Lab Wars” where you play the role of a grad student trying to sabotage other people’s labs. It looks fun(ny), we should get it!


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