Fem. ''Does Sex Bias Affect Science?''

"Does Sex Bias Affect Science?"  by Karen Freeman, Post-Dispatch Science
Editor, St. Louis _Post-Dispatch_, 3/22/88, pp. 1E, 3E
 
Do we need a feminist perspective on science?  Or is good science really 
neutral?
 
Those questions were posed by Sue V. Rosser when she spoke to several audiences 
at the University of Missouri at St. Louis earlier this month.  Her answer is 
that science "cannot be gender-neutral as long as our society is not neutral on 
these issues."  Rosser, 41, is director of women's studies for all of the 
campuses of the University of South Carolina and is an associate professor of 
preventive medicine and community health at its Columbia campus.
 
Those who cherish a vision of science as a pure quest for truth may have 
trouble swallowing the idea that sex bias can taint mainstream science.  But 
sex bias sometimes affects the direction of research as well as the 
interpretation of data, Rosser contends.
 
She says that a feminist critique of science is also needed to draw attention 
to these problems:  slight historical attention to the contributions of women 
to science, the inability of current teaching methods to interest many girls in 
science, the small number of women scientists, and the salary gap between men 
and women scientists, and the exclusion of females as research subjects in most 
biological or medical research.
 
In the last century, Rosser gently reminds us, eminent scientists "proved" the 
mental inferiority of women on the basis of cranium measurements.  They fudged 
their data -- either deliberately or inadvertently.  (Cranium measurements are 
no longer accepted as a valid way to assess intelligence.)
 
In current research, Rosser sees bias in a number of areas -- especially in 
sociobiology, which looks for biological bases for human behavior.  Without 
condemning all research in sociobiology, Rosser says that sociobiologists often 
"overgeneralize to conclusions not supported by their data".  
 
A good example of that can be found in primatology, the study of primates, 
Rosser says.  Until the last couple of decades, few women were in the field.  
Researchers focused their efforts on a couple of species -- those primates 
whose behavior was thought to mimic human behavior, Rosser says.
 
The scientists described the primates' social structure as "harems", and they 
paid particular attention to aggressive behavior by males.  Then they turned 
around and used those conclusions to argue that societies dominated by men had 
a biological basis, Rosser says.
 
The recent influx of feminists into primatology has markedly changed the field, 
Rosser says.  One man's "harem" is a feminist's "single-male troop of animals" 
-- an emotionally neutral description [though it still focuses on the *male* 
-khs].  Rosser says that one feminist, Jane Lancaster, described a single-male 
troop this way:  "For a female, males are a resource in her environment which 
she may use to further the survival of herself and her offspring. . . . Only 
one male is necessary for a group of females if his only role is to impregnate 
them."
 
The women studying primates have expanded the field to include a wider variety 
of species and have found a variety of social arrangements -- single-male 
groups are far from universal, Rosser says.  And they have studied other areas 
overlooked by men, such as relationships between females.
 
The perspective brought by feminists to the field has made most primatologists, 
male and female, more aware of the need to purge terms with emotional 
connotations from their descriptions of animal behavior, raising the quality of 
science, Rosser adds.
 
Both women and men in science need to be made aware of sex bias because women 
scientists have been trained according to the male point of view, she contends. 
 "I was trained that way -- we all were."

Sex bias will continue to affect the way science is conducted and financed 
until more women get into the field, Rosser says.  But many women view the 
field as inhospitable, she adds.
 
"I've asked some of my best students why they don't want to stay with science, 
and they say they see it as too restrictive.  They associate science with war 
and with destroying the environment," Rosser said.
 
She cites a number of barriers to women in science:  National Science 
Foundation figures show that women in science earn 71 cents for each dollar 
earned by men at the same professional level, and women may find it harder to 
plug into professional networks and to collaborate with other scientists.
 
Current teaching methods tend to discourage girls from taking an interest in 
science, Rosser says.  She and a colleague are beginning a study of 
seventh-grade textbooks used in South Carolina to find out if they contain sex 
bias.
 
Although the cultural conditioning of women may discourage them from pursuing 
such interests as science or math, science could benefit by accommodating some 
of the positive traits identified with women, Rosser says.
 
If the tendency of women to focus on relationships were translated into a 
feminist perspective on science, more attention would be paid to the social 
consequences of research, Rosser predicts.
 
"If we're going to attract more women into the field, we may have to change 
what we call science -- make it less cold and autonomous.  There are positive 
aspects of women's socialization that could be used to improve the way science 
is done."
 
Rosser travels frequently to speak about feminist issues in science; this 
semester, she will make 10 out-of-state trips.  Next month, she will publish 
her second book:  "Feminism in the Science and Health-Career Professions:  
Overcoming Resistance"  (Pergamon Press).


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