Sunday, January 04, 2009

Scientists and Femininity

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

A couple of days ago, Dr. Isis provided advice to a self-described "overweight girl lacking even a pretty face" about the ways women scientists (or any scientists) can get noticed: by doing brilliant science and packaging it effectively. Her post reminded me of a discussion also involving Dr. Isis--and one that focused in part on the packaging of women as scientists and as science bloggers.

The challenge of Dr. Isis

This earlier discussion was kicked off by a critique of Dr. Isis's blog stylings at Transient Reporter, on which blogger KH of Propter Doc commented,

I liked it at first but now the writing is just a steriotype and a pretty poor one at that. Thing that bothers me more is that this cartoon personality makes female scientists sound like shoe fettish ignorant bimbos.

Later in the same comment thread, KH emphasizes the difference between criticizing Dr. Isis and her writing style. But she's not alone in her critique of the writing. drdrA writes,

I see Isis has taken a turn toward the more serious now that she has moved her domicile to scienceblogs. I think this is a good thing as from her previous blog I felt that she didn’t address the issues women face in science in a serious or particularly useful way- although I’m sure she has issues to cover, they just got lost under all the shoes/makeup/cake/ the many uses of the word vagina/penis/and other sexual references- that of course make one popular but don’t add to the discourse at all. I’m pleased that she’s at least come a bit in a more serious direction…

The packaging of women in science, and particularly of Dr. Isis, has become a recurring topic over the past few months, reappearing just a few days ago in another Dr. Isis post.

Isis, who comes across on her blog as a colorful character who is more than mildly self-absorbed, a fierce critic of bad science, and a fashionista with a shoe fetish, cited a comment from reader and commenter Becca:

[T]aking into account societal context, there are times (e.g. your exclaimations of distress over other's lack of fashion sense) where you carry a patriarchical message. You will, partially by implication through your own choices, but also through active processes, encourage conformity to sterotypical gender norms that others may experience as oppressive. You should carefully consider the effects of the role you model. We all should, albeit not to absurd lengths of energy- and soul-sucking excess.

Opinion: wholistically, the whole Dr. Isis package, of snarky comments, joy of motherhood, absurd shoes, totally hot science, and bloggy goodness,makes you a totally awesome role model. But nobody is perfect.

Isis responded:

Oh, most delicious Becca. If you think I do not consider with every post the effects of the role I model and that I'm all-in just for the giggles, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken. However, I think we should all be very clear that it is not my Naughty Monkeys that are causing women to leave academia. It is not my Naughty Monkeys that are making women feel as though they do not have support of their colleagues when they raise families. You see, Becca, I could wear Danskos every day for the rest of my life (although I would be terribly miserable), never visit Sephora again, wrap my chest every day until my DD breasts stick out no more than a B cup would, and my male colleagues aren't going to suddenly notice and say, "Hey! Dr. Isis seems a little less girly! Let's invite her into the club and pay her as much as her male colleagues."

I hate to use this phrase, but this is a Strawman Fallacy and it makes us take our eye off the larger prize. Fashion is not our problem -- I could go to work tomorrow dressed as un-traditionally feminine as I could muster and it's not going to change the fact that I've gotta figure out how to keep amazing research going, plan the birth of my next child (but don't tell the Isis-in-laws I'm considering another), figure out how to nurse said baby while managing my career and return to work at a time that is beneficial to me and my child, and keep my home running while I do it all. My shoes are oppressive? My whole life is oppressive because I am trying to make my way in a career that only partially respects and accommodates my desire or lack of desire to reproduce.

For a Dr. Isis post that mixes feminist theory with what it means to be a woman and a scientist, check out her response to a black female grad student who worries that sometimes she's valued as much for how she looks in a diversity brochure as for her talents as a scientist, yet who wonders how she can avoid being marginalized as a scientist because she's a woman and a person of color. Her primary advice is to find allies who

appreciate us, want us in the game because of the skills we bring, and are trying to lay down mechanisms (ie, open doors) by which we can get the opportunity to play. As this happens, we can begin to lay down our own mechanisms (and, to some degree, are already). Funding is tight enough as it is; take advantage of every opportunity you can without apology. Then, take everything and accent it with the brilliant science I have no doubt you are capable of doing.

Isis also meditates in another post on the suppression and exclusion of women and minority scientists.

How should a woman in science package herself?

The discrimination women face in science is not unique to their fields. After all, women in sports, academia in general, and all other manner of careers must clear obstacles to their acceptance and advancement. That said, in my observation, science is a particularly nasty tangle of gender and sex and race discrimination because so many scientists are reductionists--that is, they're more often interested in the ways the parts of a system influence its workings than they are in the system as a whole. And because scientists must specialize, often they become fascinated by one single part of a larger system, which means they're in danger of not seeing the forest because they're studying the mites that live on the beetles that live under the bark of the trees. Gender, as we all know, is a complicated phenomenon, one that is influenced, we might or might not agree, by biology as well as culture.

Imagine for a moment that you're a white male scientist (I know that's a stretch for many of us) who has been very successful in his field. The last thing you want to hear is that you've had unfair advantages because of the culture of science. You want to believe that your own intellect, your own efforts, are exclusively what allowed you to rise to the top. The flip side of this is that those who do not experience the same levels of success in the field--many of them women or people of color--must not be working hard enough or have comparable intellectual firepower. Now, it's not popular or politically correct to express this sentiment so bluntly, but the science blogosphere time and again has revealed that many people believe that science--and academic science in particular--is, or should be, a pure meritocracy.

But it's not. End of (that) discussion.

This puts women in a frustrating position. Must women abandon whatever cultural beliefs and habits and attitudes they cultivated in favor of homogenizing themselves into the milky white fluid coursing down the pipeline of American science? If a woman is a herpetologist, is it acceptable for her to argue against biological determinism in humans even as she publishes papers about such determinism in frogs? Is that hypocritical? (I say of course not, but others may disagree.) And must this woman wear sensible shoes and forgo hair products in the name of blending in?

Or should women take the opposite tack and argue that women, culturally and perhaps to a lesser extent biologically, do bring a different--and valuable--perspective to scientific theory and practice? Feminist theorists and philosophers Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding have both, in slightly different ways, argued for this approach--that starting from women's lives (be they the scientists' lives or subjects') makes science more democratic because it makes visible the various oppressions faced by marginalized peoples. There are, of course, perils to such an assertively feminist approach, particularly the defense mechanisms from more traditional scientists who can't see that the ways they have been practicing science are marginalizing. Who, after all, wants to admit that he (or in some cases she) has been asking the "wrong" (in a culturally valuable sense) kinds of questions for decades?

Certainly there is a middle way. For example, is it permissible (from the perspectives of science or feminism) for women to dress in ways (be they stylish or sexy or some combination thereof) that may draw attention to their bodies as well as their minds?

Your thoughts?

Other recent posts of note on women in science:

Zuska writes on "the proper way to be a woman in science"

Is it UNFAIR to have women's faculty groups? at Blue Lab Coats

Janet Stemwedel (AKA Dr. Free-Ride) on women, scientists, and ordinary human beings

The Scientiae Carnival of women scientists' posts on crossing thresholds and opening and closing a variety of metaphorical doors

Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection advises, "Don't be a 'woman in science.'"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I figured out way back when I was a callow youth in the '60s that one of the dilemmas of any group that differs from and has been excluded from the cultural norm (in this case, white male scientists--which relative to the world at large aren't all that "normal" themselves, mind you) yet wants to have access to the power, perks, and privileges of the norm is that they are essentially trying to negate the statement "you are different, and therefore inferior and/or less entitled to the goodies". There are two ways of negating this statement: 1) I'm not different, and therefore should have the same access, or 2) Yes I am different but in a good way and should have access anyway.

Some people take one tack, some the other, and I think both are needed to shift cultural attitudes and practices. Partly becasue I think both are often true. In this case: If the science is good science, it should be recognized and acknowledged as such regardless of the source. That is the ideal--perhaps unattainable, but nonetheless part of the ethic of science, and scientists should try to llive up to it.

On the other hand, if for no other reason than the fact that they/we have experience outside the norm, people who live outside the norm do indeed have ideas, attitudes, and often insights that may differ from the norm, and these can be a source of new ideas and insights within science itself.

So here's to the women who practice science and don't care about fashion, and here's to those who do. Here's to those who say "I'm no different from a male scientist and should be treated the same" (and may even see in science or academia in general a refuge from the relentless pressure to care about appearance and fashion found elsewhere) and here's to those who declare "Look how beautifully different I am from men, and yet look at the great science I do." We need you all.

(In the interests of full disclosure: I'm female, not a scientist, but hang out on the fringes of higher ed. I say "fringes" because the field of education has never quite made full status within academia, and I'm in teacher ed.)