Is Science “Gendered?”

I must begin by confessing that I know very little about what it means to say that a certain, non-human subject is ‘gendered’ in academic feminism. The simplest definition that I can find is simply that it means that a subject is “Of, specific to, or biased toward the male or female gender.” In that context, an argument that science (at least historically) is ‘masculine’ seems eminently reasonable; for centuries, institutional sexism served to ensure that the overwhelming majority of scientists would be male. Even today, society encourages girls to view pure research science (or at least the more mathematical sciences) as something that they either cannot do, or should not do. I’m afraid I cannot speak from personal experience on this subject, but I find it overwhelmingly likely, looking back on my life so far, that, had I been born as a cissexual girl, I would have opted to major in one of the Humanities or Social Sciences rather than in theoretical physics*.

I have also heard the argument that science may be considered ‘masculine’ on the grounds that it acts as a tool of the Patriarchy to be used to further the systematic oppression of the female sex. I strenuously disagree with this argument on the grounds that science, if done correctly, should never be expected to support any particular political ideology (which is precisely why authoritarian states go out of their way to muzzle scientists**). That’s not to say that it won’t support a particular ideology; merely that there is no reason to assume that it will before the actual research is carried out, and historically, new paradigm shifts in science do far more to undermine existing power structures than they do to reinforce them (the names “Galileo Galilei” and “Charles Darwin” leap readily to mind). Neverthelss, even though I disagree with this argument, it at least makes sense to me.

The argument that I fail to understand, though, is that science as a subject has a certain masculine character inherent to its very structure. What does this even mean? How can a subject like physics or biology (or anything else which is not a person) have an inherent “gender?” My first impression of this argument was that it was ridiculous, and I’m sorry to say that reading-up the subject has not been terribly illuminating for me. For example, I found this article (an anonymously-authored ‘primer’ on the subject from the University of Minnesota, meant to be given-out to science teachers) to be quite unhelpful :

Some feminist thinkers (male, as well as female) contend that in the past three centuries, we have led ourselves to an imbalanced or incomplete view of what counts as `knowledge’. If so, then we have excluded as peripheral or non-authoritative valuable knowledge. In this view, the whole fabric of science and its process, not merely its theoretical content, is androcentric. One may vividly re-express the question borrowing from the familiar dichotomy in the Taoist thought of the East: is our current science more Yang than Yin?

A feminist might also ask us to consider how we typically associate science with general or universal laws, rather than with the understanding of particulars. Have we privileged such knowledge or given it higher status because it is male- (Yang-) gendered?

But of course, this just raises the question: why are “general or universal laws” considered to be masculine whereas “particulars” are considered feminine? Reading on does nothing to clarify the situation:

Similarly, do we emphasize abstract over concrete? In physics, why do we typically use depersonalized objects, such as metal balls or carts, to test ordinary phenomena? Why not examine motion on an inclined plane by rolling a soup can (complete with label!)–or examine freefall using a heavy physics textbook(!)?

Umm…because the label could interfere with the motion of the soup can, thereby making it difficult to effectively illustrate the point being made? Is it inherently female, for some reason, to clutter a demonstration up with unneccessary details which detract from it’s explanatory power? The author(s) make some point about reductionism:

Feminists also challenge the prevalent reductionist approach which seeks to understand things primarily in terms of their parts. A female-gendered approach, by contrast, would give equal emphasis to context or the larger system in which a thing operates.

Why would this be a ‘female-gendered approach?’ The whole argument seems to be based on asserting that science is masculine because reductionism is masculine, and then arguing that wholism must be feminine because it is the opposite of reductionism, an argument which they attempt to justify in terms of hierarchies:

On a larger scale, we frequently `reduce’ human behavior to the physiology or chemistry of the brain; and we reduce chemistry to physics. Implicit in the process is a hierarchy among the sciences…Feminists might challenge any hierarchy as exhibiting a male-gendered focus on levels of unequal importance or power.

Once again though, one must ask: why is ‘hierarchy’ necessarily masculine? Are all hierarchies equivalent? Is saying that quarks are elementary particles whereas protons are composite particles the same thing as saying that Kings are appointed by God and Peasants are just one rung above animals? Does the bare idea of a hierarchy, no matter what metric one uses to measure it’s elements, have some sort of automatic, negative moral connotation? More to the point which I think that the author(s) must be making, are all hierarchies necessarily patriarchal? You’ll notice, now, that the argument is that Science is masculine because reductionism is masculine because hierarchies are masculine; nowhere do they explain how one goes about ascribing genders to abstract concepts in a logically-consistent manner***.

Understand, I’m not actually trying to cast aspersions on the idea that science as it is practiced today might, indeed, be inherently male. I honestly have no idea whether this article is representative of the arguments behind this claim. If any of my readers could explain this to me (or even direct me to a good source on the subject), then I would be quite grateful, however, as it is, I’m afraid that I’m just not seeing it.


*Some day, I will tell you why I ultimately opted for theoretical physics.

**This is of course the part where I throw-in the ubiquitous dig against our “beloved” Prime Minister of Canada

***Also, one might note the irony that the entire chain of reasoning is, essentially, reductionist.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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6 Responses to Is Science “Gendered?”

  1. Seems odd that they argue that certain things are female (particulars or details, context, etc.) and certain things male (hierarchy, universal laws, etc.) considering women and men are supposed to be equal through the perspective of feminism.

    I noticed that they seem to say understanding the greater context AND “understanding of particulars” are female-gendered things, while “understand things primarily in terms of their parts” and “general or universal laws” are male-gendered. Don’t those things seem a little contradictory? I mean, understanding in terms of parts seems to go with understanding particulars and understanding greater context seems to go with universal laws.

    I haven’t read the primer, but the quotes you took from it make it look pretty useless.

    Anyway, I like your post.

    • The rest of the primer is, in my opinion, even sillier actually. The author(s) go on to criticise experimentation for being too invasive (“manipulating–even destroying–nature, rather than observing it merely”) and propose that 16th-century midwifery should serve as a model for more “female-centred” sciences. I left out that part because it seemed kind of removed from the main thrust of their argument, but the whole idea seemed to be that experimentation is masculine whereas passive observation is feminine. Frankly, it seemed alot like it was being based on a rather unfeminist set of gender stereotypes.

  2. Lindsay says:

    I am going to leave several comments, because there’s a lot in this post worth commenting on!

    Even today, society encourages girls to view pure research science (or at least the more mathematical sciences) as something they either cannot do, or should not do.

    I did not get this message, as a cissexual girl, but there are two things peculiar to my life that would serve to counteract even a strong social prohibition against girls thinking they can be scientists: 1) my family is made up of very science-y people, an engineer father and nurse mother, and I think my dad assumed that all his children would grow up to study either a pure science or some flavor of engineering. He did lean heavily on all of us to excel in those fields, and he was hurt when my brother turned out to be more interested in business; and 2) even as a child I had this sense of myself as not-a-girl. Not necessarily a boy (a sense of myself as definitely masculine would come later) but definitely not a girl.

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