Gender, Science & Life

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It’s funny how once you learn about something, it pops up everywhere. You start seeing it all the time in places you weren’t looking before, and it all seems so obvious. How did I not notice this before? It’s pretty surreal, and it’s such a pervasive experience that it’s been given a name — the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. I became very familiar with that sensation this semester; once you learn about how deeply ingrained gender is in culture, society, and even biology, you begin to see it everywhere. I found myself wondering why all of the female circus performers in a Cirque du Soleil show I saw recently were given roles that required less strength (I mean, come on — all of those performers are badasses who are very capable of lifting one another. Why are the girls always being lifted?!). Watching the new Bill Nye show, I found myself grabbing a notebook and jotting down all the ways that Bill’s female assistant was being portrayed differently due to her gender — why didn’t she need to button her lab coat, when the male assistant in the next episode seemed to follow all normal protocol? Who the hell wears high heels in a laboratory?

billnye

Because when women are dressing for lab work, they’re worried about setting fashion trends.

It seems that through this class, I’ve consumed the kool-aid of gender issues. I’ve seen what can’t be unseen, and now I see it everywhere. One of the places this class focused on gender was in the context of science, an incredibly interesting facet of a wider phenomena.  Science is a way of attaining knowledge that, it turns out, is riddled with assumptions rooted in gender construction like every other human endeavor, belief, or creation. This realization has extended into a wider awareness of the paramount importance society and culture have on the way that we understand the world and our place in it.


 

I’ve split the myriad main strains of thought the class bred in my disorganized, kooky brain, in the hopes that it will be easier to follow.

Dichotomies

One of the more striking aspects of this class was how dichotomous, black and white thinking kept appearing and reappearing in the narratives people use to make sense of the world, and especially in their understanding of gender. Males are strong, stoic, sensible, intellectual, dominant. Females are soft, weak, nurturing, emotional, irrational, submissive, complicated. What’s even crazier is that you can take those set of adjectives and apply them to so many other things we see as dichotomous — science and religion, science and the arts/humanities — and you can even see it in the historical record when people in positions of power have used “feminine” adjectives to describe, for instance, people of color. Far more often than not, the words used to characterize the female are employed to describe whatever is less valuable, as juxtaposed against what is moreso.

Understanding things as dichotomous makes the world seem simpler, and it gives those doing the describing a lot of agency in determining what is good and what is bad, to use dichotomous thinking to describe dichotomous thinking. We’re getting very meta here.

Science as Masculine

I want to delve a little deeper into the connection between science and masculinity, because it took me awhile to really understand what academics were talking about when they were claiming that science — objective as it is! — is a part of “the patriarchy.” The words we often ascribe to men, like stoic, rational, sensible, and intellectual, are also consistent with how most people see science. A great and especially relevant example is this; one of the core values scientists often hold is that they maintain objectivity when conducting experiments and making observations. Emotionality or sentimentality, most would agree, have no place in the scientific method. One observer should see the world as it is, and the next observer should see the exact same phenomena. This is how science professes to find absolute truths about nature — by removing human error, conceived of as subjectivity.

In contrast, the object being studied by the scientist is isolated, its agency rendered as minimalistic as possible. Women (and femininity in general) have often been associated with nature. Think of some of the female adjectives again — emotional, complicated, nurturing. Most of them are also often used to characterize nature. Women have often been thought of as closer to nature, less able to separate themselves from it, and therefore more controlled by it. When the masculinized scientist, then, is studying a feminized nature, gender discourse finds its way into the scientific method in more ways than one.

Gender & Biology

Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexualitygoes into this (and well beyond it — definitely worth a read!). I’m going to take a few of her more obvious examples to explain how science is indeed gendered, and why that even matters.

One of her most striking examples can be found in her discussion of hermaphroditism. The term itself — hermaphrodite — seemed so archaic to me. It came as quite a surprise, then, when I read that 1-2% of births today are hermaphroditic. Babies are born with all sorts of mixtures of sexual characteristics, and doctors often make decisions immediately or shortly after birth about which sex is “dominant”; they then perform various operations and procedures on the infant to assign it a sex. Male or female. How would you make such a decision, though? What exactly, biologically, makes someone a woman or a man?

People can be born with a wide combination of testicles, ovaries, penises, and vaginas, sometimes even halfway in between two or with both. Doctors and medical scientists have sometimes given gonads (testicles/ovaries) precedence, sometimes they’ve gone with external genitalia (vagina/penis). Equally interesting, however, is what they prioritize when making decisions to render someone male or female. In the case of males, penis size is of utmost importance. Will it be large enough to penetrate a female? Will he be able to please his sexual partners? For females, in contrast, reproductive capacity takes precedence. Will she be able to carry children and give birth? Written into these decisions are assumptions about what role each gender is supposed to play in society. Far from being objective, these scientists and medical professionals are a part of the society and culture from which they emerged, and the subjective decisions they make play into and perpetuate beliefs about gender they’ve inherited.

Stuff about rats?

Feminism

There is a counter-narrative to this overarching gendered discourse, and it’s called feminism. The word is wrought with cultural meaning and incorrect assumptions, all of which I brought with me into class. I thought of feminism as a monolithic ideology, pushed by women that refused to have doors held open for them and had a general distaste for men. I knew that, as a woman, I was disadvantaged in some ways; I’d make less money for performing the same jobs as my male counterparts, and people would assume I’m probably bad at math and/or science. I was happy there was a segment of the population that was fighting against that sort of thing. But at the same time, I didn’t really want to be associated with them. They, in my mind, were militant and overly aggressive.

Through this class, I discovered that most of the misgivings I harbored were ill-conceived and somewhat false. The dissonance I was feeling about their being combative was largely due to my conception that women should be docile; I perceived any critical action as hostile, something many women in the public sphere or workplace find to be the case.

A Female in a Male’s World

Concluding Thoughts (aka, Weird Philosophical Rant)

I learned a lot about gender and science this semester, but I also learned a hell of a lot about myself and the crazy world I live in. In some ways, I feel like most of the things I took for granted as fact, or at the very last objective, are far from it. We experience the world through our humanity, and thus everything we know must be filtered through our limited lenses. We seek absolute knowledge for the power it gives us in controlling our world, but we are always overconfident in our ability to see our surroundings as they are. We seek objectivity, an absolute separation from ourselves as human actors, believing that this will lead to a purer truth, to the answers that will save us, that will give us control or render us autonomous.

The bane of humanity (or maybe it’s just Western culture) is our inability to look beyond the black and white. It’s control or be controlled, knowledge or ignorance, independence or reliance. I think gender issues go beyond male and female — I think they embody and can be explained by a profound discomfort with the dangers of nature and the need to maintain autonomy and control. In a world inundated with risk, ambiguity, and uncertainty, people cling to things (be they ideas, materials, culture, etc.) that give them agency and shun things that do not. I can see this in my own life and in those of people around me, and I can see it in the historical record.

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