Gender in science

Final paper in History of Science and Technology with Myles Jackson – see also the presentation version

When we ask what the field of gender studies has contributed to understanding the relationship between science and society, we must separate two classes of feminist critique: discussions of equity, and discussions of content. The equity critique is straightforward: women are underrepresented in the sciences, in terms of employment and academic admissions, public recognition, and prestige. The remedies are equally straightforward, at least in theory: enforce anti-discrimination rules, actively recruit female candidates, and work to create more equitable workplace and school environments. The execution of these remedies is challenging, but there is little controversy about whether or not we should pursue them.

How It Works

If we examine gender theorists’ critiques of the content of science, the issues become more complex and contentious. Such content critiques include: what if science is excluding not just women, but femininity? Beyond the harm to women who wish to be scientists, does this exclusion also harm science itself? Why should gender bear on the gathering of objective facts about nature? If we argue that science is socially constructed, do we then have to let go of the idea that there can be any truly objective facts? If there are objective facts independent of the observer’s social context, is there a value to a ”feminist science” that is distinct from just doing better science? 

Keller (1999, 234) sees a “structural homology” between gender and science: sex is to gender as science is to nature. In biology, a homology is a characteristic of disparate organisms that derives from a common ancestor. For example, the same ancestral tetrapod forelimb gave rise to such different-seeming structures as primate arms, whale flippers, bat wings, and dogs’ front legs. By the same token, Keller argues, gender has emerged as a set of socially constructed theories about sex in the same way that science has emerged as a socially constructed set of theories about nature. The recognition that gender and sex are related but distinct entities parallels the recognition that science and nature are related but distinct.

If gender is not defined in any straightforward way by sex, nor science by nature, then how do we define them? As fields of discourse, both gender and science are under polarizing pressures as they attempt to resolve these debates. In discussions of gender, the poles are biological determinism and infinite plasticity. In discussions of science, the poles are objectivism and relativism. Infinite plasticity is unworkable because of ”the recalcitrance of sex”—while it may not determine gender completely, it also cannot be ignored completely. By the same token, science cannot be completely relative because of ”the recalcitrance of nature”—however difficult it may be to represent objectively, nature still exists (Keller 1999, 242). However, we have seen too much evidence of the socially constructed nature of both gender and science to be able to accept traditional biological determinism or old-fashioned claims to uncomplicated objectivity either.

An opponent of “feminist science” might argue that objective facts are objective facts, and the gender of the scientist has no bearing on them. A great many female scientists feel this way. Keller (1999) points out that women are under considerable pressure to disavow the significance of their gender, since it has been such a longstanding justification for exclusion. This puts female scientists into a bind, however; if all scientists are held equally to a universal standard of excellence, that can only mean that difference is a legitimate basis for negative judgment. Therefore, women, like other marginalized groups, are eligible for inclusion only to the extent that they can minimize their differences from insiders, or disavow them entirely.

If science were a straightforward collecting of facts, then a universal standard for scientific quality would make sense. But pure, simple observation of undisputed facts is quite unusual in science. Theories must precede the gathering of data, because otherwise we do not know what data to gather in the first place. When we do gather data, it may be partial, or noisy, or ambiguous, or subject to the vagaries of complex technology. The data are then handled by error-prone humans who are not always free of bias. And even when we can agree what the data are, we frequently find our interpretations differing. All of these factors lead to a process that is rife with social politics.

Since science is indeed infused with politics, advocates for feminist science can therefore argue that science is also infused with gender: specifically, masculinity. Men have made science their near-exclusive domain for centuries, and in spite of equity gains in the past few decades, many fields are still heavily male-dominated. Beyond numbers, though, feminist critics can point to the values of scientific enterprise as heavily constructed in masculine terms. This is especially true in the “pure” sciences like particle physics, where the search for reductive unified theories is the central animating drive. “What money does in the exchange orders of capitalism, reductionism does in the sciences: there is finally only one equation” (Haraway 1999, 175). The one true theory that dominates all others may indeed exist, or it may not. To assume that it exists and to organize scientific pursuit around shows specifically masculinist values.

A related aspect of masculinist science is the concept of the impersonal observer, the “view from nowhere” to which scientists aspire. Haraway calls this the ”god trick”—by imputing a kind of divinity to their supposedly impartial and world-spanning gaze, scientists imply that their authority must be similarly divine and unquestionable. Now that our primate eyes can be technologically enhanced to see “the mucous membrane lining the gut cavity of a marine worm living in the vent gases on a fault between continental plates” or “a planetary hemisphere elsewhere in the solar system” (Haraway 1999, 176), the idea of seeing everything from nowhere is no longer simply a metaphor; the god trick becomes a part of our mundane reality.

Particle physicists regard their field as the most pure form of science. It is also one of the most male-dominated fields, and one of the most masculinist. The gendering of physics takes shape during the fifteen year training period for new physicists, when they must learn not only the substance of the field, but also the proper behaviors and values. The transmission of meaning from teachers to students happens not only in formal settings, but also in lab work, conferences, and casual socializing, in “the informal annotations of everyday experience called common sense” (Traweek 1999, 525). These annotations take the form of stories about people and events, stories infused with unspoken morals.

The long journey to becoming a physicist is a kind of pilgrim’s progress, fraught with peril, with significant obstacles to overcome and battles to be won. The fact that only a quarter of would-be physicists make it through their training only adds to the sense of harrowing adventure. It is no accident that physicists tend to be avid science fiction and fantasy fans; they recognize in these epic tales an echo of their own stories. American physicists undergo three stages of education: undergraduate, graduate school, and research associate appointments. Each stage inculcates a particular set of values and attitudes. Undergraduates “learn from textbooks whose interpretation of physics is not to be challenged; in fact, it is not to be seen as interpretation” (Traweek, 1999, 525). In graduate school, advisors take on a more personal, mentor-like role, and while introducing students to the particle physics community, help these students imagine themselves becoming members of that community. Students hear stories of success and failure, and get a sense of the style of “doing” physics, including the values of hard work and long hours. As postdoctoral research associates, “students” become working scientists. They begin to learn their physics rather than from books and articles. They also must cultivate and perfect the persona of a successful researcher.

For the history of sources, we should substitute the history of figures; the origin of work is not the first influence, it is in the first posture: one copies a role, then, by metonomy, an art; I begin by reproducing the person I want to be (Barthes 1977, 99).

The persona of the successful particle physicist has a particular set of qualities: competitiveness, an acerbic and sarcastic tone, independence from authority (carefully balanced against the need to show deference to mentors), and a contempt for mediocrity.


It is certainly possible to do good scientific work without behaving according to unspoken community norms, but getting that work acknowledged and validated by the community is another matter. As we will see with the story of Barbara McClintock below, when scientists fail to meet the proper behavioral standards, their work may well be ignored, regardless of its merit. Most communities work this way; scientists are only unusual in the degree to which they deny that social factors carry any weight.

The physicists see themselves as an elite whose membership is determined solely by scientific merit. The assumption is that everyone has a fair start. This is underscored by the rigorously informal dress code, the similarity of their offices, and the “first naming” practiced in the community (Traweek 1999, 534).

As part of their commitment to a view from nowhere, most physicists believe that their scientific work is free from cultural influence, including gender politics. This is a view that can only be sustained from within a tightly knit and completely male-dominated culture. As viewed from the outside, cultural influences speak loudly. For example, Traweek cites a high school physics textbook that describes particle physics “the spearhead of our penetration into the unknown.” The “shaft” of this spear consists of chemistry and engineering, then biology, then perhaps the social sciences and humanities. Physicists see their field as requiring the greatest intellect and rigor, and the humanities requiring the least.

Physicists might argue that the “physicist persona“ is not gendered; it is simply the way one needs to behave in order to secure the approval and funding for large experiments requiring enormous resources. But Traweek gives lie to this objection by comparing the values of the American physics community with those of their Japanese counterparts. In Japan, traits like independence, competitiveness and individualism are stereotypically female traits, not male ones. Men are believed to be more inclined to group camaraderie and teamwork, which are the traits most valued by Japanese physicists. In reality, large-scale science done by anyone probably requires a blend of independence and teamwork; it is significant, meanwhile, that whatever the masculine traits are in a given culture, those are the valuable ones for scientists to have.

American physicists not only undervalue a concern for the social and emotional realms; they are proudly ignorant of these areas. Many scientists of my acquaintance signal their disinterest in the irrational and arbitrary social realm through performative social eccentricity, pointedly casual and unfashionable clothing, “nerdy” interests and accompanying dismissal of social pursuits like sports, and lack of insight into anything pertaining to the unconscious. This puts women at a distinct disadvantage, since they have no choice but to inhabit the social and emotional worlds. A male scientist can wear t-shirts and jeans without being judged or even noticed, but women are relentlessly scrutinized and criticized for their appearance. Even if women choose to be antisocial, they are likely to have social interaction forced on them in the form of catcalls and other sexual attention from men. Women are also under significantly pressure to be mothers than men are to be fathers, which runs counter to the expectation of many late nights in the lab.

What does science lose through the systematic exclusion of femininity, both in the form of female scientists and typically “female“ ways of thinking and being? We can look to the fields of biology and archaeology for examples of ways that masculinist bias can be an obstacle to objectivity. The story of the geneticist Barbara McClintock is the story of a scientific innovator whose work was overlooked for many decades. In asking to what extent McClintock’s marginalization was due to her gender and what was due to other factors, we can begin to see what role a feminist science might play in preventing such situations in the future.

McClintock discovered transposons through her work with maize cytogenetics in the 1940s and 1950s. She took a complex and holistic systems view of genetic function within organisms at a time when most of her field had adopted the reductionist dogma of physics. However, McClintock’s work was ignored for decades, and was only vindicated after others independently arrived at the same conclusions. Her belated celebration and Nobel Prize was thus mostly honorific. Also, while the mainstream biological community has conceded the correctness of her results, that does not necessarily translate into an endorsement of her methods. We could nonetheless take this story as evidence that science will eventually correct for the social biases of scientists though its self-critical methodologies. But we might also ask how many discoveries we have lost because other marginalized scientists were not as able as McClintock to persevere in spite of their obstacles.

Was McClintock’s sidelining simply due to her gender, or were other factors at work? She was eccentric and solitary, qualities that may have helped her particular working methods. Genetics research is typically done on organisms with short generation times: microbes or fruit flies. Maize reproduces slowly, with only two generations per year at most. Between this slow pace and her unorthodox analytical style, McClintock would have had a difficult time collaborating. Her institutional invisibility at least afforded her the freedom to operate as she wished. However, McClintock also had a reputation for being “prickly” and difficult. In part this was due to her ungrateful attitude toward her male friends who made efforts to help her professionally. While these men saw such intervention on behalf of a “lady scientist” as normal and acceptable and their own actions as thus being generous acts of friendship, McClintock resented the fact that their help was needed in the first place.

McClintock herself was outspokenly not a feminist, believing that ”gender drops away” in scientific contexts (Keller, 1999). However, her emphasis on intuition and connectedness do align with female stereotypes. She described her process as having a “feeling for the organism.” She was not a New Age mystic—she believed that nature is lawful and that humans can discover those laws, but that conventional rationality was the best or only discovery tool. Aside from her methodology, however, McClintock’s identity did not appear to be very typically “feminine.” For example, she never married or had children. Gender politics are germane in McClintock’s case not because they impacted her personal socialization, but because they shaped the reception of her scientific work. “However atypical she is as a woman, what she is not is a man” (Keller 1985, 174).

As a female scientist, McClintock is not unusual for denying that gender is a factor in science, even as she faced gender discrimination. Women who manage to become scientific insiders “have everything to lose by a demarcation along the lines of sex that has only ever excluded them” (Keller 1999, 240). Women’s insider status is always tenuous, and they have a psychological motivation to defend that status fiercely. Science derives its authority from its supposed inarguable objectivity; if that objectivity is compromised by gender politics, then its authority is compromised as well.

To ask women scientists to accept the notion of a different science representing a different reality (as distinct from difference in science) would be to ask them to give up their identity as scientists—in much the same way, incidentally, that traditional science has asked them to give up their identity as women (Keller 1999, 240).

With the legitimation afforded by the Nobel prize, McClintock’s scientific practice suddenly had a value to mainstream science. Since McClintock’s vindication, male scientists like Steven Jay Gould have argued that “a feeling for organism” is not a feminine trait, that any good biologist should possess it, thus negating her difference. But if her difference is not a product of her gender, and anyone can learn to think like a woman, then what does science need actual women for? Including “feminine” thinking can become just another pretext for exclusion.

Archaeology as a field depends on partial and fragmentary data that must be interpreted heavily, making it particularly vulnerable to the distortions of masculinist thinking and other social biases. The problem is compounded when we consider that the questions archaeologists are trying to answer are about how people live in social groupings, and the researchers’ own social status will likely color their thinking on those issues more than it will color their thoughts about the abstractions of physics. When an archaeologist tries to conjecture about the gender roles of an ancient civilization, how can the archaeologist’s own gender role have an influence?

The most masculinist aspect of archaeology is the persistent trope of Man The Hunter. The traditional picture of a hunter-gatherer society is one where men go forth and kill large animals for food, while women stay at the camp, tend to children, sew clothes, and cook. Men are imagined to be active, dominant, and mobile, while women are passive, submissive, and stationary. In other words: men hunt, women nest. (We might note the resonance between this image and particle physics as the head of the spear.) As a wave of female archaeologists entered the field in the 1970s and afterward, they began to question this image. They were inclined to notice, and to be skeptical of, the unstated assumptions about gender that structured both the interpretation of evidence and the field’s research agenda. An overt feminist agenda was not a necessary component of this skepticism; women’s personal experience was enough to influence their outlook.

Aside from its reactionary politics, the image of Man the Hunter does a poor job of explaining extant evidence. For example, in surviving hunter-gatherer societies, the “gathering” provides the bulk of the community’s sustenance. Women are highly mobile in their foraging activities, and they have significant expertise about food sources and their processing and preparation. Hunting is more a supplemental survival activity than a core one. In failing to account for this evidence, masculinist archaeologists do not ignore women and gender entirely; the problem is more that the conceptualize them in normatively white, American and middle-class terms, projecting a “Leave It To Beaver” scenario where it may be totally inappropriate to do so.

The work of Joan Gero shows how both the content and equity-related aspects of masculinist thinking can limit archaeology. Most researchers who specialize in Paleo-Indian communities area are men, and they focus almost exclusively on the stereotypically male activity of hunting. Women who do Paleo-Indian research work outside of this mainstream, working more on analysis of stone tools. Gero makes an equity critique when she observes that women are cited less often than their male colleagues, unless they co-author with men. This is true even when they research hunting. The content aspect of Gero’s critique argues that the field has overlooked edge-wear research on stone tools, which shows that these tools were used on a range of plant materials. If we imagine Paleo-Indians to have primarily depended on hunting of large mammals for sustenance, then a mystery arises: what happened after the mass extinction of those large mammals? If we understand that Paleo-Indians had a variety of plant and animal food sources, the mystery disappears; these ancient people only had to shift their subsistence strategies rather than completely reinvent them.

Feminist critiques can similarly enlighten the question of how Paleo-Indians began to domesticate gourds and maize. Androcentric thinking has tended to presume that women did not take an active role in this process. One hypothesis is that male shamans developed domesticated plant variants through their manipulation them for medicinal purposes. Alternatively, perhaps plants effectively domesticated themselves by adapting to the environmental disruptions of human activities. Either way, we are left with the image of women passively gathering wild plants and passively tending domesticated ones while playing no role in the transition from one state to the other. Mary Kennedy and Pat Watson ask how, then, do we account for evidence showing that domesticates appeared very early in environments that were not optimal for them? How do we reconcile the fact that women in contemporary foraging societies often possess the main expertise about plant and animal resources? Or that shamans are not always men?

Androcentric archaeology has tended to presume that gender roles are a constant across time and social context. Christine Hastorf undermines this assumption in her work on state formation in the highland Andes. She shows that, before the advent of Inka rule, Andean men and women had the same dietary intake, and performed the same work processing maize. However, under the Inka state, dietary evidence shows a sharp divergence between the sexes. The Inkas negotiated with men as the heads of households and communities, and used them as conscript labor for construction projects. Women remained at home and did more intensive maize processing. Therefore, Inka rule profoundly altered Andean gender roles when they brought local communities into the state.

Wylie (1999) observes that archaeology, like other sciences, has opportunities for self-correction whenever the evidence resists our expectations. If the facts do not fit our theories, then we must adjust our theories. The limitation here is that our theories determine what evidence we look for in the first place, and influence whether or not we regard that evidence as valid. We cannot simply wait for theories to correct themselves; we must attack our biases and misconceptions in advance.

Haraway (1999) points out that “official ideologies about objectivity and scientific method are particularly bad guides to how scientific knowledge is actually made” (173). The stories of Barbara McClintock and of masculinist fallacies in archaeology illustrate that. If we posit that science as traditionally practiced is not in fact neutral, but rather lopsidedly masculinist, then feminist science corrects an existing gender bias rather than introducing a new one. But if we can never eliminate these kind of socially constructed biases, must we then acquiesce to the claims of social constructionism that science is nothing more than using privilege to persuade other social actors of the validity of manufactured knowledge? If we recognize the historical and political contingency for all knowledge claims, can we ever speak with certainty about the “real” world? Critics of feminist analyses of science decry the nihilistic hyperrelativism that they see pervading the social sciences. If science is ”politics by other means” (Wylie 1999, 556), nothing but assertions of status and privilege, and if there is no “view from nowhere”, then how can there be objective facts at all?

If a solution exists to this dilemma, feminist scientists argue that it lies in “partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology” (Haraway 1999, 178). To move all the way from the objectivist pole to the relativist pole does not constitute progress, since complete relativism is just another way of seeing from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. Objectivity and relativism are perfect mirror images of one another as totalizing ideologies, since both deny the fact of our limited and partial perspective, thus making it impossible to use that perspective to see the world more accurately. We need an understanding of objectivity that is not such an all-or-nothing affair. It is implausible to imagine a science free of social or political factors, and equally implausible that anyone can be a truly neutral observer. Aligning ourselves with marginalized perspectives is an improvement, but that perspective is ultimately as limited as that of privileged insiders. Our methodologies must be able to take partial perspective into account, and to mitigate and counterbalance it as best we can.

The value of diverse viewpoints is not that women or other minorities have an intrinsically stronger claim to objectivity than white men do. Instead, their value lies in preventing a homogenous community from mistaking its social consensus for an uncomplicated grasp of universal truth. Whatever our assumptions and biases are, we will always need someone capable of recognizing and being critical of those assumptions and biases. Science is about the search for what we do not know, but ultimately we can not know what we do not know—therefore, “only partial perspective promises objective vision” (Haraway 1999, 177). This is not just a matter of forestalling mistakes and omissions. There are positive benefits to embodied and situated perspectives as well, as a source of new hypotheses and theories, as McClintock’s feeling for the organism opened her to the idea of transposons. “We do not seek partiality for its own sake, but for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledges make possible” (Haraway 1999, 182).

Feminism has more to offer science than just a method for challenging assumptions in content. In arguing that science can never be inseparable from politics any more than it can be separable from nature, feminism challenges science to be aware of the ends to which the broader society is putting it. Capitalist societies have long equated knowledge with the power to dominate nature. Even the antonyms “natural” and “artificial” carry the implicit assumption that humans can ever be considered apart from nature. But we are not, and never can be. In considering alternative notions of knowledge, feminism also asks us to consider alternative meanings of power. Domination of nature cannot be our only goal in pursuing science. Climate change and mass extinction are showing us the hard limits of our ability to control and exploit nature through scientific means. Earlier generations feared the existential threat of nuclear weapons, a threat that remains very real now. But it seems that an even greater threat lies in simply going about the routine business of civilization. Never have we more needed a conception of science that asks how we might cooperate with nature rather than conquer it.


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_________. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: Times Books, 1985.

Munroe, Randall. “How It Works.” XKCD, retrieved 15 Dec. 2017,

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Traweek, Sharon. Pilgrim’s Progress: Male Tales Told During a Life in Physics. In Biagioli, 1999.

Wylie, Alison. The Engendering of Archaeology: Refiguring Feminist Science Studies. In Biagioli, 1999.