Gender and Science

It’s a sad truth that women’s proper role in the sciences is a history of only about a hundred years. If science is a human process of discovery, then barring anyone from that process on any basis is reprehensible. Men have traditionally dominated the sciences - the sequence of events that propelled physics, chemistry, and math to its position today were fueled by men - but women were always here. Their contributions were mostly indirect at first, but throughout the modernization of science, standout women illustrated the ability of their gender, a resource that went mostly untapped until the 20th century.

To confront gender issues in the sciences, it’s important to understand the factors at play. The forefront of them is that men are to blame for our current position: engrained into our society is a subtle, pervasive bias towards men where perhaps there’s no good argument for one. Men have claimed society’s predominating roles as their own, and in the process have created a world of masculinity, a patriarchal culture that treats women as anomalies whose conformity would be much appreciated. In the twenty-first century, this is the least true it’s ever been, but part of confronting it requires we admit what it once was, and whether it might even be possible to create a egalitarian relationship between men and women - what that might entail, and whether we would want it.

This issue has baggage. The history of men and women is an old one, and our understanding of it has thankfully improved over the last few centuries. Understanding the issue necessitates some research into the history of men and women––by analyzing the undercurrent of thought that has guided this ancient debate, we can correctly explore the more interesting modern issues of why sexism is engrained into our society, male rationale for sexism, empirical differences between the sexes, and why women still aren’t as prevalent in the sciences––despite the disappearance of the barriers that once kept them. We can also better assess the idea of gender roles and whether it obfuscates deeper issues related to the interaction between men and women.

The term science has lost its scope over the centuries. Where today we think of science as a collection of systematic pursuit in the specific fields of chemistry, physics, biology, or other so-called “natural” sciences, the definition of science in the Middle Ages are most applicable to the questions at hand (Whaley): science then referred to a capacity to know and think abstractly. To suggest that women are incapable of this definition argues against volumes of modern research, but is substantiated by centuries of intuitive, sexist thought.

Thought on women most significantly begins with Ancient Greek society. If it’s hard to believe in a modern male-centric culture, consider that the debate is rooted in the overtly patriarchal Greek society. Women were under the control of men, subservient to their husbands and fathers. Women were kept from intellectual discussion and literally partitioned from it in other rules. This is undeniable, and the reasoning guiding it is evidenced in literature and mythology. The Odyssey depicts women negatively by associating them with temptation or disaster (“Women in the Odyssey”): Pandora, the first woman to be created, opens the box she has been told not to open, releasing evil and pain, attributing curiosity and foolishness to woman. Calypso, the nymph who detains Odysseus, works through seduction and flair as opposed to physical strength, a popular distinction that distinguishes women from men negatively, championing stereotypically masculine traits over destructive, feminine traits. However, Greek mythology includes goddesses along with gods, though these goddesses are more limited in their power to their god counterparts and are celebrated for their masculinity (the depiction of women as inferior in creation myths and cultural literature is common by today’s perspective; for instance, in the Bible, Eve parallel’s Pandora’s foolishness and is created from the rib of Adam).

The Greek consensus is that woman is inferior, though the reasoning behind the thought and what it should imply about woman’s treatment differs by philosopher. The evidence driving this idea was the difference in women’s physical and biological makeup, a “wetness” derived from their role in reproduction as a cold receptacle for male seed. This manifests when the Athenian lawmaker Solon “institutionalized the subordination of women in a series of laws passed around in 594 B.C.”. These laws gave men power over women in issues of family and land and may well be the progenitor for the legal submission of women (Whaley).

The application of this thinking was different by thinker. While Aristotle would articulate the predominant theory of the sexes, his teacher, Plato, would offer more expansive ideas. For Plato, The world was distinguished between men, women, slaves, and animals, and although women were a step above beasts and outright slaves, they were thought of as evil: women were men reincarnated as punishment for living unrighteously; therefore, the mere existence as a women was condemning. Women were mutilated men, Plato mused in Timaeus (Moller Okin).

But to call Plato’s ideas clear-cut misrepresents his thought process: Plato was never especially clear in his discourse on women. There’s simultaneous evidence that Plato’s woman was inferior and equal: Plato’s chief, guiding philosophy was that of the soul, which was sexless. Indeed, Plato’s most popular work, The Republic, was radical in its description of ideal society. It seems that Plato acknowledged the looming norm of the inferior woman while simultaneously suggesting that that fact not bar woman from the same opportunities. The ideal society was unified, which was impossible, theoretically, if women were discriminated against. Republic suggested that women be allowed education, public office, and the same jobs and roles as men, and. In Laws, Plato argued that this approach was less radical because women could be comparable to men if they received similar training (Kohlstedt).

Love is a contradiction in sexism that was handled deftly by Greek thought. Where there is love, there is no imposition, Einstein would say. To control a person while claiming to love them is one of the most egregious dissonances repeated through history, and it has always required substantial rationalization. However, before Aristotle, Socrates’ school of love could logically elucidate women as temptresses. Aristophanes believed love between man and woman was governed by the young, earthly goddess Aphrodite, who worked in shallow, vulgar passions, emphasizing the expression of love through sex. The heavenly, older Aphrodite, counterpart to her earthly sister, dealt in more sophisticated love that drove men to each other, though not sexually. Socrates believed that true love was less a confluence of flesh and more of the mind––love was the procreation of thought to transcend the individual and lead to the beautiful. For the Greeks, Love emphasized sublimation of impulse over subordination of another (Moller Okin).

In terms of his treatment of gender, Plato’s work feels like a reaction to his society that sought to homogenize men and women. Susan Moller Okin wrote, “By the time he came to write the Laws, Plato had come to notice that female nature was not fairly represented by the depraved and stunted women of his own society.” Laws shows more significant push for gender equality while still acknowledging that women were biologically and physically inferior––Plato’s radical contribution might well be that this was a hurdle women could overcome.

Plato’s influences would also be less condemning than Aristotle. Pythagoras saw men and women as one of his ten principles of opposites. Men were to women as hot to cold, light to dark, right to left, and good to bad. Opposition didn’t necessitate inferiority; women were the natural counterbalance to masculinity and were allowed to learn and contribute to philosophy and science (Whaley). Paramenides, considered the father of metaphysics, believed that men and women contributed equally to the process of reproduction and that it took equal parts male and female seed to create a person. Empedocles of Agrigentum propagated the first known theory of the complimentary sexes - that each were different but equally valid in the process of reproduction.(Moller Okin).

Aristotle disagreed selectively with these theories of women. Men and women were different, yes, but very different; “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled,” Aristotle wrote (Kilcullen). Aristotle’s sexism ran deeper than Plato’s. While it can be argued that Plato saw women inferior in contests of physical strength, Aristotle thought this inferiority stretched to women intellectually and ethically. The best evidence of this was in reproduction. Women were receptacles of reproduction: men contributed the seed and the woman was the cold receptacle in which it could grow.

As ancient as this view towards women is, it thrives today as gender essentialism, which is heuristic compartmentalization of genders through apparent biological and physical differences. In categorizing people, those who share characteristics must share a deep, “causal essence that confers their identity” (Dhesi). Children entering their pre-teen years use this heuristic in their schema of the world, believing that gender predicts academic ability with stereotypically masculine and feminine subjects. As they enter their teen years they are more likely to understand the effect of environment on the shaping of personalities and more ambivalent about how sex might affect personality.

This leads to a discussion on the ways in which men and women might empirically be different, which we will visit later, but is important to refute the idea that such thinking is completely non-existent today.

The ensuing schools of thought concerning “the woman question” are variations of Greek approaches. They can be articulated as three different ideas. First, that women are “mentally and socially inferior to men”, from which argued Rousseau, Kant, and Diderot; second, that women were equal but different, which Voltaire would discover in his work with Emilie du Chatelet; and third, that women were potentially equal “in both mental ability and contribution to society, from which Helvetius and Condorcet argued (Whaley). These would be established at the late 18th century and combat each other until education for women began to open at the end of the 19th century and through the 20th.

The “woman question” is a blanket term that has historically been used when addressing the question, “what should we do about women?” It is a male-centric, disingenuous fragment of the larger, more honest question of “what should we do about women and men?” Even in its phrasing, the approach to gender equality has been alarmingly positioned to favor men.

If nothing else, it should be obvious that Aristotle was wrong in his major assertions. Contradictions like Hypatia of Alexandria (A.D. 370 to 415) argued against everything Aristotle would write on women (Adair). A mathematician, philosopher, and teacher, Hypatia was inducted by her professor father Theon into the world of education. Theon emphasized diversity to Hypatia, and she became recognized as a skillful orator and teacher. Hypatia is credited in mathematics with the early development of parabolas, hyperbolas, and ellipses, ideas that would become integral to Newton’s calculus.

Theon emphasized a rigorous physical and mental routine to Hypatia, and her resulting prowess argues against Aristotle and the mentally inferior woman. Again and again, empirical research argues against Aristotle’s stance, and we have never found any meaningful results otherwise. Hypatia’s example illustrates that even near Aristotle’s time, women were capable when they were given the room to work.

Hypatia also leads us to question the role of religion in sublimating women. It’s likely that Hypatia’s death was a result of the riots during the rise of Christianity as a domineering religion (Adair). How has religion dealt with women? In the Middle Ages, the church of Rome afforded women great freedoms if they were willing to submit to the church’s authority. Convents offered female leadership, and education was even extended to select women (Whaley). Hildegard of Bingen, a woman from 1098 -1179 AD, again shows that women were capable thinkers when given the right environment. Hildegard wrote major works of theology, notably Scivias, which gained acknowledgement through Germany onward.

Women like Hildegard (Herrad of Lensberg, namely, who authored Hortus Deliciarum–– an illustrated theological encyclopedia (Herrad) ) flourished insomuch as the Roman church let them. It’s likely that, had they deviated from popular teachings, they would have been silenced by church authorities. Men still believed women were servile to them, but there was mostly no harm in letting them spread doctrine. Besides, most of this freedom for women would wither as harsh misogynism crept back into prevalence, as underscored by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, which understood women as servile for their own good (Magee). “One is servile,” Aquinas wrote, “by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin.” Aquinas propagated the belief that women existed as sinners, inferior to men (Thomas).

The western treatment of women is effectively engendered by Aristotle’s ideals. The Women were respected but marginalized, without equal rights, and expected to fulfill a homely role (Whaley). As physics began in earnest in the sixteenth century with Copernicanism, science grew, culminating in the birth of its modern, systematic structure during the seventeenth century. Its institutionalization brought setback for women. Newfound scientific academies largely excluded women, barring them from the “new sciences”, which included experimental sciences, observation of new phenomena, and the study of burgeoning modern sciences such as chemistry, astronomy, and physics. Key individuals who pioneered the scientific society, such as Francis Bacon, held prohibitive views of women in education. Even The Royal Society, less rigid and more informal in its structure, didn’t admit its first woman, Kathleen Lonsdale, until 1945 (Whaley).

A lot of what worked against the quick uptake of gender equality was the vast diversity in thought at what a gender-egalitarian landscape might look like. Even those who pushed for more freedom and respect for women didn’t necessarily agree at what it meant. There were differences in what women ought to be taught, who should teach them, how they should learn it, which women deserved it, and why. There was even more to disagree about on the other end––in what ways were women inferior? Biologically, socially, mentally, ethically? The sheer scope of the debate might be its biggest hurdle.

The development of science and women’s access to it, as well as the the development of women in society, can be described as an ebb and flow that slowly and incrementally works to equalize men with women. The complete history of this dynamic––of the slight progression each century brings to women’s roles––is too long to address in complete detail but important to understand as it informs the argument that we live in a patriarchal society.

It was men who kept women from science as it grew. The reasoning behind it is largely gone now, at least in ways that are explicit, but the modern notion that only male minds shaped the development of physics is equally wrong. Men made the bounding steps forward, and while most women played the supporting role, there are a few exceptions who made sizable contribution. More recently as women’s rights, access to and encouragement towards a classical education have opened, so have their contributions.

One of the most interesting relationships in the history of physics is that between Galileo and his daughter, Maria Celeste. Maria was the oldest and brightest of Galileo’s three illegitimate children. Galileo never married his children’s mother because it would have been inappropriate for the time as she was much younger and of lower social standing than Galileo; however, he was still financially responsible for her and his children, something that would strain him during his work as a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua (Sobel).

His daughters born out of wedlock, large dowries would be needed if the girls expected to marry well. It wasn’t something Galileo could do, and he ultimately sent his girls to a convent. From there, Maria Celeste and her father would correspond until her death, and though the records of Galileo’s side of the dialogue are mostly gone, Maria’s exhibit an extreme devotion to her father, providing intelligent and genuine emotional support (Covington and Mistry). While many of her letters show requests for aid from her father, more often Maria herself sent care packages of clothes, medicine, or food for her father. During Galileo’s writing and publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, where his upward battle to cement heliocentricity over geocentricity began to boil, communication between the two intensified as they visited and wrote to another. Maria played Muse as Galileo left to Rome in 1633 to stand trial for his assertions against the church.

Maria is an effective example because her course in life shows the nature of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Though she was extremely reverent towards her father, Maria’s attitude was not uncommon for the seventeenth century. “Each letter is addressed to her ‘Most Illustrious and Beloved Lord Father’,” wrote Mark Covington and Amit Mistry, “and throughout the letters, she refers to Galileo as ‘Signore’, the Italian equivalent of ‘sir’.” Women in this time were always in some position of subservience and more a commodity than a person, much less an equal: father’s were over daughters, who could be transferred to another household by marriage. An unmarried woman was “perceived as weak, distrustful, and uncaring towards her children.” In an unrespected Florentine family this was more condemning, but for a family such as Galileo’s, entering a convent was a legitimate option (Convington, Mistry, Sobel).

Rarely does the thought of education enter into this equation for the prescribed life of a woman during this time. Where was there room? Between becoming the quasi-slave to fathers and husbands and the normalcy of contemporary gender relationships, it would have been unlikely that men would have cared to encourage women towards the sciences, and women would not have fought it.

For perspective, what if Isaac Newton had been a woman? Consider the genius and his effect on modern society. What would it look like today had the man who invented calculus––who brilliantly connected celestial objects with falling fruit––and who established the mechanics that would guide physics for centuries, were a woman? Was his aptitude a product of his gender? Probably not––we know that intelligence can be highly heritable (Deary)––but whether the world would have fostered Newton’s intelligence as a woman is another question. Would it have been harder for him (her) to interact with scientific societies and gain resources to pursue work? Being English, probably. Would he (she) have been deterred at a young age from the masculine areas of rigorous math and abstract thinking? Most likely. Whether this would have resulted in a real change is debatle, but, all things being equal, the life of a female Newton would likely have been very different.

Considered from this perspective, it’s astounding that any women accomplished what they did. Sharon McGrayne, in her study of female Nobel Prize winners, emphasized that while a fair question to ask is “why were there so few female scientists?”, the more respectful question might be “why were there so many?” Considering what they were up against, women’s progress and contribution to society is a feat.

It’s from this background that a select few men and women fought for women’s place in mathematics and science. Maria is not an example of a woman who directly contributed to science, but a woman who indirectly supported it. Women who found a place in scientific education before the twentieth century either had to display noticeable prowess at an early age or find themselves in some peculiar situation that allow uninhibited access to books or tutors. Even then, the ability for these women to penetrate classically male positions or sway thought at large was slow, and the effort was an uphill battle against social norms.

The most significant caveat to this generalization came in 1732 at the University of Bologna (the oldest European university) in Bologna, Italy. Then, Laura Bassi, only 21, was invited to the faculty (Tribute). She became the first woman professor to teach in Europe and the second to receive a doctorate. Bassi held a chair of experimental physics from 1776 to 1778 and was actually admitted a member to the Italian Academy of the Institute of Sciences. Furthermore, Bassi precipitated Newtonism in criticizing Cartesian thinking.

Bassi’s life is a significant outlier that seems to prove the subjugation of women more than argue against it. While her achievements were respected, they illustrate a few things: most significantly that the stigma of women was not universally equal - a woman becoming a member of a scientific academy was relatively acceptable in Italy, unthinkable in France (Whaley). Italy can be seen as the most progressive of its European peers, but still, no other woman immediately followed in Bassi’s footsteps, and the common ground between Bassi and women to come was only a respective set of unique, liberating circumstances. These women were iconoclasts, atypical, and unrepresentative of women on the whole.

Exemplary of this is argument is Caroline Herschel, sister to the astronomer William Herschel. She was a worthy astronomer in her own right and the first woman to be recognized in a scientific position in Scotland. It came at the cost of abandoning the traditional female life: a victim of typhus, Caroline never grew past four foot three, and she was never expected to marry. Instead, she was taken in by her brother William at age twenty two and became his apprentice at age thirty two. William trained Caroline in mathematics, and she aided him in scanning the skies for celestial objects. Caroline became an authority over her brother’s work during his absences, for which she was recognized by King George III with a pension of fifty pounds (Nysewander).

Caroline made a significant breakthrough past dusty record keeping when she discovered her own comet during William’s travels away. She would go on to discover seven more new comets, a success by the period’s measurements. While William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus outshines his sister’s work, Caroline was every bit as respectable. Towards the end of her life she was awarded the Gold Medal of Science for her life’s accomplishments by the king of Prussia, and her astronomical observations (as well as compendium of discoveries between her and her brother) were the first from a woman to be accepted by the Royal Society. She was later made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (Nysewander).

It wasn’t until Mary Somerville’s experiments on magnetism that another woman was published by the Royal Society. Again, Mary came into her education almost through luck. Her family’s economic standing gave her a decent background in mathematics, but it was really during her widowed years that her prowess grew (Wood). She was free from both husband and parent and without financial worry, giving her time to pursue educating herself. She obtained a small library and a copy of Newton’s Principia. In 1825 she carried out her experiments on magnetism, submitting a paper entitled “The Magnetic Properties of the Violety Rays of the Solar Spectrum” to the Royal Society (Somerville).

Before both of these women came Emilie du Châtelet, born in 1706. Much like the women who would follow her, it took a standout intellect for Emilie to be allowed to learn. Her early signs of potential won her a decent education where she learned Latin, Italian, and English (she would later translate the Principia into French), as well as mathematics, which would become her real love (Mandic). However, descriptions of her mathematical aptitude are couched in the conceit of her gender (Whaley). She was good––for a woman. Her work was viewed as amateurish, even in its fits of originality. While there were other female mathematicians whose work was more influential or remarkable, Emilie’s work was treated with more explicit bias. In publishing her Institutions de Physique, Emilie’s former mentor Samuel Koenig claimed the work was based off his own ideas. Despite knowing Emilie’s capabilities, colleagues lent little support, and Emilie firmly believed it was on the grounds of her gender. While all women faced discrimination, Emilie’s was more apparent.

The change of women’s roles in society was a slow burn. Equality genuinely burgeoned as women were accepted into universities, but it took standout women and the continued outcry of prominent men (and feminists) before it would become normal for women to attend universities (Moszkowski and Wong).

Daniel Defoe wrote in 1692,

“one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilised and a Christian country, is that we deny the advantages of learning to women. … Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew, or make baubles. They are taught to read, indeed, and perhaps to write their names, or so; and that is the height of a woman's education.… What is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is taught no more?”

Mary Astell, one of the first prominent feminists writing mostly at the late 17th century, argued similarly in her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, saying “Women need not take up with mean things, since… they are capable of the best.” (Mary). Mary Chudleigh, Astell’s colleague, wrote, “ Wife and servant are the same, but only differ in the name: For when that fatal knot is tied, which nothing, nothing can divide.”

These were early arguments against the suppression of women that didn’t gain much ground. Universities in England and America wouldn’t start accepting women for coeducation until Oberlin College did in 1837, opening the flood gates for other schools during the later part of the century (Byers). The philosopher John Stuart Mill published “On the Subjection of Women” in 1869 during this sea-change of gender equality. Mill wrote,

“the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.”

The logic behind the disparity of education between genders began to crumble during this era of coeducation. Some semblance of gender equality was taking hold. Women in coeducational colleges increased in 1875 at 3,044 to 19,959 in 1900. Despite this, Both Universities of Wyoming and Chicago segregated classes between men and women - “men only” and “women only”. These decisions were reactionary, working off of mostly male worries that women would scare off men or that women would benefit from an education tailored to their gender.

These suppositions did not hold, and were eventually overturned by a majority vote from faculty and alumni at the University of Chicago. President Harper of Chicago said, “The women now being graduated, with Doctor's degree, from our strongest institutions are, in almost every particular, as able and strong as the men. If opportunity were offered, these women would show that they possess the qualifications demanded.” (Byers)

The 20th century saw the effects of this progressive thinking. Whereas before singular women could, if lucky, worm their way into the scientific process, the 1900s (and late 1800s) were the breaking point for widespread access for females to the processes and resources men had been enjoying for centuries: the ability for women to participate in laboratory work and collaborate effectively created the platform for women to start making the bounding steps forward.

For instance, women had a large hand in early nuclear physics. While Henri Becquerel discovered Uranic rays in 1896, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre worked harmoniously (despite poor laboratory conditions) to discover that elements other than Uranium can undergo radioactive decay, leading to the discovery of radioactivity, Radium, and Polonium. At the discovery of transmutation and decay of elements, the periodic table took a visible gap of 30 missing elements, 3 of which could not have been found without the women Berta Karlik, Ida Noddack, and Marguerite Perey.

The modern view of the atomic nucleus as a series of energy levels was developed by  Maria Goeppert Mayer, the confirmation of which awarded the Nobel prize in physics to Mayer and Hans Jensen in 1949. A decade earlier brought nuclear fission, as discovered by Lisa Meitner and Fritz Strassman (Moszkowski and Wong).

As we approach modern science from the 20th century, the amount of women who contributed to not just physics but science as a whole increases, and to list them all would be encyclopedic rather than analytical. There was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who in 1912 discovered the relationship between period and luminosity, extending our astronomical measurements intergalactically. In geophysics, Inge Lehmann revealed the earth’s core through reflection and refraction of seismic waves during the late 20th century. Today, Helen R. Quinn illustrates women working with fields and particles to explain interactions between strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces, as well as universal symmetry (Byers).

Despite these advances, we still see evidence of cultural assumptions favoring males. In looking at how students view historical events in terms of gender, one study found that young male students were more likely to depict men in historical events, and young women students were more likely to depict women; however, when asked to depict “western settlers”, girls most often drew male-figures as Pilgrim farmers, suggesting that they believed that certain roles were gender-specific. It’s suggested that these responses show that students’ perception of history is influenced by stereotypical gender roles, both contemporary and classical (Fournier).

And while an increase in women’s participation in the sciences is good, it should not communicate a complete satisfaction with the progress made. To suggest that we have reached a plateau of gender equality ignores variables women encounter that men typically do not. 68% of women in a global survey reported that domestic duties such as caring for children significantly impacted their ability to work, while only 35% of men reported the same. (Ivie and Tesfaye) 50% of women, of whom about half raised children, believed they had progressed more slowly in their career compared to colleagues. The schism between men and women also becomes more pronounced when compared by country development; women from less developed countries consistently report having more difficulty conducting research abroad, maintaining their research or doctoral study schedule, and parenting or finding acceptable child care. However, in highly developed countries, women felt more discouraged about their career in physics as a result of interactions with colleagues than in less developed countries (Ivie and Tesfaye).

Furthermore, the feminist outlook on modern, professional science is full of criticism. A large contingent of women have been actively debating the way science is carried out since the 1960s. Carolyn Merchant, a professor of environmental history, philosophy, and ethics, wrote that professional science has become a mystical, secretive affair that the public views as requiring immense effort to participate in, giving scientists a higher, more informed plane of discussion than the average citizen (Merchant). This articulates the concern that science has become elitist and authoritarian. Part of women’s perspective into the scientific process has let them understand the extent to which that process can be insular and prohibitive to the public (Mellor). Consequently, creating a more accessible method of scientific process is one of feminists’ chief concerns.

In her 1948 book Adam’s Rib, Ruth Herschberger challenged popular notions of science that lead to elitism, namely that it is inherently masculine, rigorous, objective, and value free (Herschberger). The feminist model of science, wrote feminist Nancy Tuana in 1988, sees the modern model of science as developed and controlled by white males, which is hard to argue (whether science might actually look different as a product of the masculine gender itself is a different issue), but the contention that science is not objective nor value-free flies in the face of everything modern science claims to be and is celebrated for. Tuana argues that scientists are a product of their culture. They work within a value system and their society, which influences the object of their research. Fox Keller wrote, “the contextual values of our interpretive frameworks… guide our observations.”

Inevitably, a certain contingent of feminists argue this idea further to the point that science masculinizes women and does not allow women to be women. Sandra Harding argued women are pressured to conform to masculine ideas, and feminine traits are not celebrated or emphasized. Still, this idea is internally repudiated by other feminists, such as E. Anne Kerr, who argue for women scientists who simply do not see their gender as an important factor to their work.

Like Fox Keller’s argument of a value-guided science, the constructivism philosophy of Jean Piaget suggests that all knowledge is experiential; that is, we cannot separate what we learn from our involvement in learning it. Ernst von Glasersfeld, another constructivist, has suggested that this means the context in which we learn is vital to the way we interact with truth. In wondering what keeps women from the sciences even in today’s more progressive landscape, the constructivism world view leads us to examine the context in which girls are educated. In 1977, Elizabeth Fennema and Julia Sherman found that gender-contingent variables affective to mathematics existed (Forgasz). These differences still exist today. Girls have less confidence in their mathematic ability, and though students, parents, and teachers of both genders believe women young and old deserve just as much mathematic education as men, the males consistently believe that that men are naturally more talented at math. Furthermore, women who perform well in math are considered intelligent as a product of hard work whereas men who perform just as well are validated for their natural talent, despite little to no difference in gender performance. (LaLonde). These biases might account for why the number of females in the sciences continue to dwindle in comparison to males.

In the meta-analysis of studies published between 1990 and 2007, representing the testing of 1,286,350 women and men’s mathematical aptitude, Sara M. Lindberg, Janet Shibley Hyde, and Jennifer L. Petersen, and Marcia C. Linn found virtually no gender difference (Lindberg). To wit, there has never been any substantial, meaningful, or consistent body of data to make us think that women have any less capability to achieve as much as men. In other words, men and women are no smarter than each other, at least genetically. The better, harder question is whether women’s approach to science is different. Feminist Evelyn Fox Keller wrote in 1993 that answering this question is near impossible and maybe irrelevant for there are too many cultural factors bombarding women scientists, informing certain feminine traits while favoring more masculine ones.

It is indeed probably impossible to isolate whether men and women operate differently innately or as a product of the culture that informs its genders expectations, but perhaps that distinction is irrelevant. The fact is, we do see differences between men and women, but more in their approach to problem solving, conflict resolution, and self concept than in sheer ability to think abstractly or efficiently.

This is patently different from what can be defined as “gender roles”, which are societal categories men and women tend to err toward as a result of living in that society. Since Aristotle we have recognized that men and women are somehow different. Today we mostly recognize that this should not result in a lack of rights or equal treatment for women but still insist that these differences should effect some consistent behaviors.

However, the value of reinforcing gender roles is suspect. When Dr. Keith Ablow repudiated designer Jenna Lyons for a picture of her painting her son’s toenails bright pink that was published in J. Crew’s fashion online catalog as part of an ad for nail polish, he wrote, “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such ‘psychological sterilization’… is not known.”

Ablow wisely acknowledges the movement in popular culture and fashion to move across traditional gender roles. Throughout the twentieth century, fashion has been a forefront factor in articulating the zeitgeist for gender expectations, which have become more diluted in the clothing and fashion industries throughout the 20th century––since the 1960s, the commercial fashion industry has created an appetite for unisex jeans and pants, the production of which quadrupled from 1970-76. “In 1965, the production of women’s pants overcame the skirt production for the first time, and in 1971, 14 million pants were produced out of 15 million clothes” (Rosar). Clothes typically associated with separate men and women groups began being marketed to the other side, and men with longer hair and jewelry were advertised. The dilution of the distinction between men and women through sharing typically masculine/feminine styles can be seen as a form of moving across gender roles, and while the corporate endorsement of certain trends or behaviors shouldn’t necessarily be taken to represent the thoughts and feelings of its consumers, it is indicative of a culture that is at least partially willing to validate the endorsed behavior.

In his article repudiating the depiction of a young boy painting his toenails pink, Ablow argues there is danger in encouraging young children to experiment socially and behaviorally across boundaries typically associated with their biological gender, saying, “these folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.”

This rhetoric articulates the concern of someone who places value in gender roles, roles that have come to define the very relationship men and women have been struggling to balance over the last millennium. In analyzing the flow of thought guiding the “woman question”, it should be clear that gender roles have been the very thing holding women and men back from truly understanding each other.

The legitimate differences between men and women exist, but not in ways we might expect––most patently is reproductive behavior and gender identity. Men most often define themselves as “male” and seek women in reproduction, and women most often define themselves as “female”, seeking men (Spinney). Beyond that, the differences are more subtle, but still present in significant enough ways. In researching women and men’s interaction with spreadsheet software, researchers found differences in feature usage, confidence, and tinkering (playful exploration). Women and men consistently pursued different features of spreadsheet software in order to solve problems, and men were more willing to tinker and explore while women were more willing to ask for help (Burnett).

Studies like this illustrate that men and women can operate differently in problem-solving situations, even in situations that are assumed to be gender agnostic. Furthermore, early investigation into developing gender-specific software showed improvement for both women and men. This suggests a possible benefit to embracing gender-specific approaches, or may even speak to the plurality of learning methods.

In exploring the way women and men view themselves, women show a stronger sense of interdependent self-concept while showing a statistically similar sense of independent self-concept to men for an overall higher, more secure self-concept than men; women are more satisfied with their relationships with peers and partners, and family. Men and women also differ significantly in social skills, education, honesty with others, and spirituality, while finding little to no significant difference in intelligence, cultural knowledge, firmness of convictions, or interpersonal influence (MARČI). Furthermore, the behavioral differences women and men do illustrate are loosely correlated to their gender at best, arguing against the need to categorize genders to behavior vis-à-vis expectations.

There is a difference to be recognized between reinforcing stereotypes and celebrating the legitimate ways in which we all tend to differ. If there is a synergy that can best sustain the human race, it will be the latter––one that lets us look at one another without the self-imposed expectations of what the other ought to act like, look like, and define themselves as. The damage comes not from subverting expectations but from those who would punish the errant. The only damage ever done from letting a women into the sciences came from the men who believed in seeing that damage occur.

And so the history of science might have been very different had we avoided the dopey rhetoric of Aristotle and instead embraced Pythagoras and his opposites: the dictate of evolution gives us two genders whose innate differences surely exist but aren’t especially clear. Science has a slow, plodding history, and part of understanding that requires that we recognize in what ways we held ourselves back: here was one of them.

Works Cited

Whaley, Leigh Ann. Women’s History as Scientists: A Guide to the Debates: ABC-CLIO, 2003

Kilcullen, R.J.. “Tape 5: Aristotle, The Politics.” 1996. Macquarie University. Web. Accessed 24 Oct. 2011 <>

Moller Okin, Susan. Women in Western Political Thought: Princeton University Press, 1979

Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter: a Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. New York: Walker &, 1999

Covington, Mark, and Mistry, Amit. “Status of Women.” The Galileo Project. Rice University, 1995. Web. Accessed 29 Oct. 2011. <>.

“Tribute to Laura Bassi.” WOMEN SCIENTISTS in HISTORY. Hypatia Maze. Web. Accessed 10 Nov. 2011. <>.

Nysewander, Melissa. “Caroline Herschel Biography.” Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Agnes Scott College, 2 July 2010. Web. Accessed 7 Oct. 2011. <>.

Wood, Shane. “Mary Somerville Biography.” Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Agnes Scott College, 7 July 2010. Web. Accessed 2 Nov. 2011. <>.

Somerville, Mary. “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1776-1886) 116.1 (1826): 132-39. Print.

Byers, Nina. “CWP//Women's Learning.//”// CONTRIBUTIONS OF 20TH CENTURY WOMEN TO PHYSICS. UCLA, 4 Dec. 1999. Web. Accessed 10 Oct. 2011. <//>. //“//Mary Astell.//”// Oregon State University. Web. Accessed 14 Nov. 2011. <//>. Mandic, Sasha. //“//Emilie Du Chatelet.//”// Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Agnes Scott College, 21 Apr. 2011. Web. Accessed 14 Nov. 2011. <//>. Moszkowski, S. A., and C. W. Wong. //“//CWP at // EARLY NUCLEAR PHYSICS.” CONTRIBUTIONS OF 20TH CENTURY WOMEN TO PHYSICS. Regents of the University of California, 1999. Web. Accessed 11 Oct. 2011. <>.

Ivie, Rachel, and Tesfaye, Casey. “Global Survey of Physicists.” AIP, 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2011. <>.

LaLonde, Donna, Gail Leedy, and Kristen Runk. “Gender Equity in Mathematics.”School Science and Mathematics (2003). Print.

Forgasz, Helen J., Gilah C. Leder, and Paul L. Gardner. “The Fennema-Sherman Mathematics as a Male Domain Scale Reexamined.” National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

Burnett, Margaret M., Laura Beckwith, Susan Wiedenbeck, Scott D. Fleming, Jill Cao, Thomas H. Park, Valentina Grigoreanu, and Kyle Rector. “Gender Pluralism in Problem-solving Software.” Interacting with Computers (2011): 450-60. Print.

Lindberg, Sara M., Janet Shibley Hyde, Jennifer L. Petersen, and Marcia C. Linn. “New Trends in Gender and Mathematics Performance: A Meta-analysis.”Psychological Bulletin 136.6 (2010): 1123-135. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.

Spinney, Laura. Venus and Mars Collide. Rep. New Scientist, 3 May 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

MARČI, Renata, and Darja Kobal. “GENDER DIFFERENCES IN SELF-CONCEPT AND SELF-ESTEEM.” University of Ljubljan. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Dhesi, Japinder. “What‘s Stopping You? The Contribution of Gender Essentialism to Sex Differences in Subject Choice.” Europe's Journal of Psychology: 261-78. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 1 May 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

Fournier, Janice, and Samuel Wineburg. “Picturing the Past: Gender Differences in the Depiction of Historical Figures.” College of Education and Human Sciences. American Journal of Education. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <>.

“Women in the Odyssey.” University of Michigan. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. <>.

“Albert Einstein Quotes.” Albert Einstein | Albert Einstein Official Site. Greenlight, 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <>.

Mellor, Anna K. “A Feminist Critique of Science.” Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <>.

Harding, Sandra G. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. Print.

Adair, Ginny. “Hypatia.” Biographies of Women Mathematicians. Agnes Scott College, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

“Herrad Von Landsberg - Abbess and Author: C.1130-1195.” Women Priests. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. <>.

Magee, Joseph. “Aquinas concerning Women.” Thomistic Philosophy - the Philosophy Thomas Aquinas. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

Thomas, and Daniel J. Sullivan. The Summa Theologica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1955. Print.

Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. History of Women in the Sciences: Readings from Isis. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago, 1999. Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, Calif: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989. Print.


Deary, Ian J., Frank M. Spinath, and Timothy C. Bates. “Genetics of Intelligence.”European Journal of Human Genetics 14.6 (2006): 690-700. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Fennema, Elizabeth, and Julia Sherman. “Sex-Related Differences in Mathematics Achievement, Spatial Visualization and Affective Factors.” American Educational Research Journal 14.1 (1977): 51. Print.

Herschberger, Ruth. Adam's Rib: Ruth Herschberger. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. Print.

QR Code
QR Code honors_thesis_paper (generated for current page)

Advertise with Anonymous Ads