Leslie of ClutterMuseum has posted a roundup of the discussion of science and gender, and her take on it, that occurred here in the blogosphere a few months ago (this post is cross-posted at BlogHer). If you are interested and are not terribly burned out on this topic you might want to wander by over there and have a read. There is something about this topic that’s been weighing on me, despite the fact that the initial conversation was months ago. Perhaps this post finally crystalized what it is that’s been niggling around my edges about this. First read:
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?
Ah, NO. It is not even possible for women to abandon being women in order to be scientists as well. I’ve been here a while and I’ve still got breasts. But who said that academic women who wear sensible shoes, keep cleavage and leg to a minimum, and don’t use hair products, are doing this for the purpose of blending in??? Now, I’m not sayin’ that I do any or all (or none) of those things-… but I’m pretty sure that whether I’m memorable or not doesn’t depend on how much leg I’m showing. As Juniorprof and Isis have very rightly pointed out- confidence is more memorable than superficial appearance could ever be.
Anyway-… Leslie continues:
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?
I couldn’t agree more, women DO bring a ‘different and valuable’ perspective to academic science. To me, however, the ‘different and valuable’ perspective might mean bringing a different skill set or other substantive difference. For example, this ‘different and valuable’ perspective may be in the way women conduct research- are more likely to have a novel way of looking at a problem, more likely to be independent as they have forged their own way with crappy mentoring more often, more likely to put together broad based collaborations with researchers from other expertise, or more likely go off the beaten path into more under-investigated or high payoff areas? I have no idea if these off-the-cuff examples are actually things academic science women excel at in real life. My point, I suppose, is that if we want to draw attention to ourselves in some way- perhaps we should do it using our unique abilities irrespective of what we are wearing. And I want to point out that this is not the same as saying science is a meritocracy… just so we get that out of the way.
Anyway, the final salvo was….
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?
BUT, here is the part that what’s been bothering me in the plainest language I can muster. I am a woman. I have certain assets, or anatomical features if you want, by virtue of my gender. I KNOW that I have them. My family, friends, and colleagues and just about everyone else (including you all), know that I have them. There are very few situations in my life in which I feel I need to either ‘draw attention’ to or hide said assets. There is a difference between leveling the playing field for my gender at work, and displaying my sexuality. I’m great with the former, but for myself I’m not comfortable with the latter.
Does this make me less of a woman? Does this make me a person that’s ‘less visible’ and attempting to ‘blend in’? Does this do a disservice for the promotion of women in science?
I have a hard time seeing that.