How Do You Do Feminist Science?

How Do You Do Feminist Science?

My days as a feminist historian of science are usually full of reading the old letters and diary entries of men and women in 19th century science. Here’s a gem: “O Biologist beware of Woman,” Alfred G. Mayor wrote to his friend Charles Davenport in 1895. “You are quite right about the miserable girls in Newport taking up a great deal of valuable time, almost every night is broken into by them, and there is no peace or opportunity to think.” Translation: women interrupt the brain work of science.

I take these perspectives into my research, re-imagining what it was like to do science in the past, a strange land where rigid social codes determined who could and could not walk into a laboratory, look into a microscope, and dissect an invertebrate embryo. I am an expert at decoding the gender dynamics in STEM fields a century ago, but now, I’m figuring out how to manage them in my hands-on science classroom in 2017.

This semester, I’m teaching a new course for first year students centered on the engineering design process. No longer am I the observer, poring over old letters or closely analyzing scientific papers from a different era. Somehow, I am the scientist. I am teaching the basics of coding and electronics with Arduinos (an open source electronics platform). Like the natural scientists studying at Newport, my students and I leave the classroom and go out into the world to collect data about air quality and our heartbeats and our GPS-identified location on the planet. In our collaborative scientific endeavor, we are running into coding problems and broken circuit boards. We are not so happy when our Arduino prototypes don’t work, and we are pretty happy when they do — me and the students both.

It turns out that the gender dynamics in STEM fields in 2017 don’t look too different from what I see in my historical work. Women and minorities are underrepresented in many STEM fields, with some disciplines including physics and computer science suffering more acutely than others like the biosciences. Understanding why this is the case requires thinking through structural problems at the heart of scientific training that have to do with histories of funding, training, mentorship, and career advancement in academia and industry.

A vast array of issues related to how social and cultural values about gender, race, class, sexuality, and disability have made their way into the scientific process, and I am trained to think about this historically. I know, for example, that since the 19th century, formal technical training has been designed by and for middle and upper-middle class white male heads of household. I’m learning, however, that knowing this history still makes it challenging to design a science class that addresses the complex relationship between gender and STEM.

Psychologists have found that persistent gender stereotypes that associate men with brilliance start to form in children who are as young as six. Surveys of University of Washington biology undergraduates indicate that men overestimate the performance of their male peers and underestimate the abilities of women in the classroom. This is to say nothing about the daily reports of sexual harassment  that women experience at the hands of their fellow students and advisors.

Perhaps the most stubborn stereotype is the idea that women are somehow biologically unfit to pursue science. This idea has roots into the deep past. Biblical creation stories demarcated the abilities of Adam and Eve. Early modern natural philosophers argued that women’s intellectual inferiority was rooted in their small skull size. Nineteenth-century scientists suggested that it wasn’t just skull size (since it turned out that some men had proportionately smaller skulls than women), but “brain-weight,” an argument that feminists actively rebutted. And evolutionists argued that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection explained male variability and female mediocrity, contending more men than women were geniuses (and criminals) due to biological selection pressures. We now consider this scientific argument to be based on narrow, middle-class Victorian social norms.

The most modern incarnation of this old stereotype is the idea that men and women have different spatial capabilities, a required skill for many STEM fields. Yet it turns out that a fifteen hour course in spatial reasoning makes up for gaps in spatial awareness due to different preparation levels, cultural differences in preferred play, or a handful of other reasons. But while teaching women to code isn’t hard, transforming toxic cultures in Silicon Valley seems almost impossible.

Although I anticipated that teaching this course would be a technical challenge, I have been more surprised by how much of an epistemological challenge it has been. What is the best way to subversively integrate feminist pedagogy into a large project-based engineering classroom? How do you talk about the basics of prototyping while also making space for wider issues about gender and STEM? What are effective ways to model an approach to science and technology that makes it seem accessible to everyone?

My current approach is to frame the decisions my students and I make within the social and cultural contexts I use in my historical research. We think about the open-source technology we’re using (e.g. the gendering of robots or wearable e-textiles), about the composition and functionality of our lab groups, about the possible users for our prototypes. While I understand that this does not dissolve (or solve) the tensions around gender in STEM, it does, at least, start a conversation about how to bring humanistic skills and modes of analysis into the STEM classroom. While still making these damn Arduinos work.


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