A male preserve

Science - Ziauddin Sardar on prejudice against women scientists

Professor Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution, is the 122nd most powerful person in Britain. This surprising revelation was made in the recently published Channel 4/Observer Power 300 list. Greenfield is a highly respected neuroscientist and, given her media profile, I have no reason to dispute the claim. But the discovery - if I can describe it as such - is surprising because she is, well, not just a scientist but also a woman.

Women scientists are not normally known for their power and influence. Indeed, women scientists are conspicuous largely by their absence in positions of power and influence in science. Worse: women are just rare in science.

Why? One obvious answer is that women are discriminated against. The discrimination starts in schools where girls are slotted into subjects that are seen as their "natural" province. It continues to adolescence and adulthood, with the result that women are systematically discouraged from engaging in the kinds of thinking necessary for skills in scientific, mathematical and engineering work.

Those women who do get into scientific careers are contained within demarcated boundaries. They are trapped in a pattern of segregated employment and under-recognition from which few can escape. Numerous studies and reports have shown that women scientists are mainly to be found in the lower echelons of the scientific enterprise, and the achievements of the few who can find the resources to carry out independent research are systematically undervalued relative to similar achievements by men.

The most recent report comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is the product of a two-year battle between Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist, and the MIT establishment. Hopkins joined MIT in 1973 and became a tenured professor in 1982. Her work was constantly hampered by a system stacked against women scientists. She discovered that her problems were common to other women scientists at MIT. They often got the worst jobs, earned less and had less prestige within their departments. There were only 15 tenured women, compared with 197 men. While male scientists were getting whole new buildings, women were confined to ridiculously small laboratory spaces - some could not even get a closet. Women had more teaching responsibilities than their male colleagues, but faced more difficulty in obtaining grants.

Hopkins compared the science environment at the Institute to "a Wild West culture where the strong take from the weak". She organised other women at MIT and ended up chairing a committee that published a report, in April 1999, on sexual prejudice there. Hopkins's report is seen as a milestone: for the first time, a prestigious institution such as MIT publicly acknowledged a "long-standing pattern of gender bias".

Of course, the long-standing pattern is not confined to MIT. It is a standard feature of science. Even the European Commission now accepts that discrimination against women in science is widespread. A few months ago, it established a "network of networks" of women in science as a pressure group to expose sexual prejudice and campaign for more women in science.

Is sexual prejudice merely a question of management of science, or is there something inherent in science itself that discriminates against women? Feminist scholars of science have been arguing for a few decades now that science itself is inherently anti-women. At one level, it is simply the content of science that appals many women. As Sandra Harding, professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware and author of the influential Science Questions in Feminism (OUP, 1986), puts it: how many women will choose a career goal of building a bomb, torturing animals or manufacturing machines that put one's sisters out of work? But the feminist analysis goes much deeper and points a finger at the nature of science itself.

Feminist scholars accuse science of being inherently "androcentric". Consider, for example, the traditional evol-utionary theories that tell us the roots of some human behaviour are said to be found in the history of human evolution. The origins of western, middle-class social life, where men go out to do what a man's got to do and women tend the babies and look after the kitchen, are to be found in the bonding of "man-the-hunter"; in the early phases of evolution, women were the gatherers and men went out to bring in the beef. These theories are based on the discovery of chipped stones that are said to provide evidence for the male invention of tools for use in the hunting and preparation of animals. However, if you look at the same stones with different cultural perceptions, say one where women are seen as the main providers of the group - and we know that such cultures exist even today - you can argue that these stones were used by women to kill animals, cut corpses, dig up roots, break down seed pods, or hammer and soften tough roots to prepare them for consumption. You now have a totally different hypothesis, and the course of evolutionary theory changes. Other developments in science, such as the rise of IQ tests, behavioural conditioning, foetal research and socio-biology, can be analysed with similar logic.

Gender bias thus emerges in the way basic questions are asked in science. The kind of data that is gathered and appealed to as evidence for different types of questions enhances this bias further. Feminist scholarship of science, which is truly monumental both in terms of quality and quantity, has analysed almost every branch of science. It has shown that the focus on quantitative measures, analysis of variation, impersonal and excessively abstract conceptual schemes, is both a distinctively masculine tendency and also one that serves to hide its own gendered character. And it has revealed that the prioritising of mathematics and abstract thought, standards of objectivity, the construction of scientific method and the instrumental nature of scientific rationality, are all based on the notion of ideal masculinity.

Would a fair representation of women in science change anything? To begin with, it would have obvious economic advantages. Knowledge-based economies, in dire need of trained scientists, cannot afford to squander half of their scientific potential. There is also the argument that more women in science would open up science to a wider range of material and social problems. For example, the problems of the Third World would receive greater emphasis and more research support. But the feminist scholars are arguing for something more.

Sandra Harding has suggested that women would introduce a shift away from conventional scientific method and objectivity to what she calls "strong objectivity". Strong objectivity requires the scientists to take perspectives of the "outsiders" - the social scientists, the environmentalists, the housewife, the non-western cultures - into their description and explanations of the subject of scientific inquiry. In a similar vein, Hilary Rose, one of our most respected feminist scholars, talks about "responsible rationality" that restores care and concern within scientific objectivity.

The argument here is not that feminist notions of science should be recognised as legitimate and desirable alongside the conventional practice of science. Or that anti-sexist concepts, theories, methods, and interpretations should be regarded as scientifically equal. Or even that more women should be trained and recruited to work alongside colleagues and within institutional norms and practices that are obviously discriminatory so that women could become men in order to practice science. The argument is that having a fairer representation of women in science will not actually solve the problem; science will continue to be discriminatory. Only a fundamental transformation of concepts, methods, and interpretations in science will produce real change. Feminist scholars are asking for nothing less than a re-orientation of the logic of scientific discovery. I am wholeheartedly with them.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome