At Odds with science?
by Gina Feldberg
Much has been done, during the past two decades, to improve women's representation in medicine, mathematics, science, engineering and the technologic trades--henceforth referred to simply as "science." Still, the perception that scientific work is not women's work persists. Study after study indicates that women remain a minority in the scientific professions (1). And as the December 6, 1989 events at Montreal's École Polytechnique made clear, some Canadians remain hostile to women as engineers--or surgeons, or nuclear physicists...
The sources of North American discomfort with women scientists and physicians have been identified as threefold: historical definitions of appropriate women's work; economic and political barriers that enforce these definitions; and theories of biological nature invoked to justify a doctrine of separate spheres. More recently, the relation of Canadian women physicians and scientists to the wider women's movement has also affected patterns of women's representation in science.
This paper explores the impact that efforts to define a "feminized", "feminist," or "female" science have had on women's participation in these disciplines. The analysis is based on questionnaires completed by undergraduate students in an upper level science and gender course at two Canadian universities. Interviews with undergraduates and faculty in women's studies programs supplemented these data.
Feminist scholars have launched what can be seen as a two-pronged critique of science and gender. Informed by liberal principles of equity and equality, one line of research and activism has sought to increase women's participation in, and thus to "feminize," the scientific professions by both recognizing women's historic contributions and encouraging their further endeavours (2).
Another critical inquiry focuses on the content of science. Some scholars have systematically analyzed biases and flaws present in scientific statements about women (3). These insights provide the basis for a more systematic critique of the Western scientific enterprise, which exposes the patriarchal roots and practices of the Western Scientific tradition (4).