Jul 2, 2013

It's not the women in science who have a problem

Google "women in science" and you get a worrying picture. You know the kind I'm talking about - "Fewer women in top positions mean fewer female role models for students." "Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women." "STEMS came in for particular criticism for not encouraging enough women into their industries." And, today, "Women in science have an image problem.

It's all well meaning stuff, and certainly breaking down the many barriers that still stand in the way of women's professional self-fulfillment should be high on the list of social justice issues. But what is a bit off about it all is that it's always presented as being a problem for women. Those poor women, the unspoken (or spoken) argument goes, they are being unfairly denied the access, recognition and credit they deserve, and it is oh so unfair, and we must make sure we are nicer to them from now on.

But science - and, frankly, social justice - doesn't really work that way, does it? Without getting into a debate about epistemology here, let's just set the baseline for the scientific method and say this: it makes truth claims. They are conditional and hedged about with process, but they are truth claims nevertheless, and they are based on a certain kind of engagement with the world that privileges completeness of facts and informational integrity. So when data is cherry picked, elided, ignored or misrepresented, this is the problem for all scientists, because it undermines this fundamental basis for the scientific method.

The erasure of women's historical contributions to science is unjust and in many ways just plain ugly; but from the point of view of students int he STEMS disciplines today, it should be a big concern that they're not taught who was the first person to ever get two Nobel prizes, or who really discovered nuclear fission, or who the greatest fossil hunter of the 19th century was, who was the first person to twig that genes were not static instruction manuals but had regulatory networks, who invented debugging, who tidied up relativity, and that sometimes brilliant people give up their ace science careers because they have a crazy-ass husband. The "problem" is not "for" the brilliant and remarkable women who scaled enormous obstacles to make these stunning achievements - it's for the students themselves. Because they are being given a shit education. And they should be mad about that, be they male or female.

Science progresses by taking the best results from the most talented researchers (or the luckiest, frankly sometimes it makes no difference) and incorporating them into an ever evolving body of knowledge. It is the paradigmatic case of "garbage in, garbage out". But even if what goes in is not garbage, you're not going to get diamonds out if you don't make sure you plough all the available diamonds in. That this happens - that some diamonds drop out on gender discrimination grounds - is not a "problem for" the young women who are discouraged from entering or staying in STEMS: it's a problem for STEMS.

How many Jane Goodalls have been intimidated, under-funded or ignored out of pursuing field work? How many Anne McLarens were denied the reproductive care that enabled them to continue their research? How many Dorothy Hodgkinses found they had to take care of their husbands instead of working towards a Nobel prize? How many, finally, young women have been simply raped off campuses? Or sexually harassed out of science departments by senior academics unable to collaborate with anyone whose gender threatened their authority?

Are all these (hypothetical only in their detail) events grave injustices to the women in question? Without a doubt, they are. But they are also a massive, incalculable loss to science. Imagine if we discovered that in some labs, they simply throw away 50% of the valid results without incorporating them into the research. Why, we'd take away their tax-granted funding, for starters! But that's basically what happens when we - as a society, not just the STEMS departments in universities - either exclude women from the sciences with a shrug or, at worst, wring our hands about "the problem of women in science".

It's not a woman problem. It's a science problem. Sort it out.