SHiPS Resource Center ||   Women, Gender & Science
originally published as SHiPS Network News, Vol. 4, No. 1 (October, 1993); revised 6/98



Case Studies

Ethics Case

Stereotypes and unidentified assumptions undermine effective science and education alike. Our culture, for example, typically portrays science, both its practice and product, as free from biases, such as sexism. Yet at the same time, one commonly encounters an attitude that women (or girls) are less competent in math and science. We are also becoming increasingly aware that scientific theories have been instrumental in efforts to legitimate women as inferior or to subject them to certain biological ("natural") roles. This webpage highlights how we now understand these aspects of science better through feminist perspectives--and how we might therefore teach science more effectively as a result.

Issues of sex and gender raised by feminists (though by no means limited to them) fall into three (rough) categories, each the focus of a separate discussion:

  1. the participation--and recruitment and education--of women as scientists --see Science & Equity;

  2. bias in "objective" knowledge based on sex --see Sex & Objectivity; and

  3. the "masculine" or gendered nature of the contemporary scientific process -- see Gender and the Nature of Science.

Special thanks to historian Stephen Brush, who contributed his list of sources on women of the 20th-century whose scientific work was of Nobel caliber .

Thank to Frances Vandervoort, Muriel Lederman and Christine Cunningham for their comments.


  • Eunice Foot / Gas Temperatures & the Weather

A very simple problem: why is it warmer in valleys than on mountaintops? Students familiar with the cause of temperature variation in the seasons may suspect--as many in the middle of the 19th century did--that the principle reason is the angle of incidence of the sun's rays. Others, however, claimed temperature was affected by the density of the air: where the air is rarer or less dense as at higher altitudes, temperature is lower. Such a claim readily invites experimental investigation. But the test waited for the initiative and experimental design of a "scientific lady," Eunice Foot (see below). Foot also examined different gases (with different densities) and moisture (another major factor in weather patterns).

Foot's experiments were presented at the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (one measure of their significance). Scientific American reported on her work--and the original text is reproduced below. The comments lauding "ladies" in science contrasts strikingly with the sad admission that most women did not have "the leisure or the opportunities to pursue science experimentally."

The case of Eunice Foot is a good occasion to teach experimental design. Students may well be guided in constructing tests similar to hers. Foot can also provide a role model without undue fanfare (where the goal is to portray women in science as "natural" rather than exceptional).

A deeper consideration of the story, however, may raise some questions about both communica-tion and sexism in science. First, one may recog-nize that scientific "research" is not complete until it has been shared publicly and others convinced of its legitimacy or value. Though Eunice Foot per-formed the experiments herself, the paper was read to the AAAS by Joseph Henry, widely respected for his work on electromagnetic induction: why? One may speculate whether it was a "political" move--borrowing Henry's fame to gain a wider audience--or whether it was the only way a women's work could gain recognition in that period. In either case, the work appears to have gained support from a scien-tist as prestigious as Henry. On the other hand, perhaps Henry was merely following professional courtesy in reading a paper for someone who could not travel to the meeting. One can certainly find it entertaining to speculate on the various possibilities.

  • Scientific American. "Scientific Ladies.--Experiments with Condensed Gases." Vol. 12 (#1; Sept. 13, 1856): 5.

  • Maria Martin / Botanical Illustrator

Binomial nomenclature of species is, of course, the foundation of Linnaean taxonomy. But how does one name a species? While the specific name is often descriptive, it is also sometimes a Latinized version of a proper name--assigned as a personal tribute. Thus, for example, James Audubon named one new species of woodpecker Picus Martinae, explaining:

In honouring this species with the name of Miss Maria Martin, I cannot refrain from intimating the respect, admiration, and sincere friendship which I feel towards her, and stating that, independently of her other accomplishments, and our mutual goodwill, I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgement for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers. [Ornithological Biography, Vol. 5, p. 181]

Indeed, Maria Martin (1796-18) was as expert with the botanical illustrations as Audubon was with the birds. Her work is found in volumes 2 and 4 of his Birds of America (1826-38), and includes the Gordonia perch of the Bachman's warbler; the flowering loblolly-bay with the fork-tailed flycatcher; the azalea with butterflies that appears with Swainson's warbler; and the spider flower that accompanies the rufous hummingbird. She also contributed to Holbrook's 5-volume North American Herpetology (1836-42).

ETHICS CASE: "Who gets the science fellowship?"

Case: An alumnus of the school has just donated a modest endowment for funding a fellowship "to promote better science." Four students have applied for the first year's award. All have demonstrated interest in science through summer science classes, volunteering in labs and at museums, etc. But the academic standing of the applicants varies widely. One boy has excelled in all his science classes, has impressed every teacher and has the highest GPA, SAT and ACH scores; he is thinking of medical school and being a doctor like his father. Another has shown aptitude just in physics; his research project won this year's regional science fair. A third has done only reasonably well in science, but is a exceptionally skilled writer and is planning to be a science journalist. There is only one girl applicant; she has done average (not remarkable) work, but she continues to express a strong enthusiasm for geological field work. The committee's responsibility in selecting a student is, as expressed by the benefactor, "to promote better science": who should be given the fellowship?

* * *

DISCUSSION: The choice here involves ethics because the committee is hoping to treat all applicants fairly or justly and to make principled value judgments. The case exemplifies well how ethics intersects with science as an institution. The problem may be typical in that the students each have different strengths and reasons for receiving the fellowship, and hence are not easily compared with one another on a single scale.

The scenario is especially challenging because it calls upon students to examine critically common assumptions about our standards of what is "best." Here, academic criteria alone may not suffice. Interest in science will affect whether or not the fellowship is ultimately used productively. In this case, all four students have demonstrated sufficient interest.

Much of the decision hinges on how one characterizes "better science." The position of the prospective journalist asks us to consider whether public understanding and promotion of science is indeed part of science. If stronger public support means more funding for research, is that not "better" science? The potential physician allows us to ask whether the practice of medicine, so linked in our minds with biology, is itself "science." If it does not involve research, one might well say "no." Many M.D.s would argue that theirs is a service profession, not a scientific one (though it is based on scientific knowledge).

The case also raises the question of equity of men and women in science. Women are currently underrepresented in science except in a few fields (mostly biological and behavioral). Is science with fewer women worse off? If so, then selecting a girl for the fellowship would promote "better" science. One may draw on examples from the articles in this issue to show that claims for equity have substantial merit, based on fairness, eliminating sex bias and broadening our conception of knowledge.

This case also provides an occasion to introduce students to the notion of `restitutive justice'--that is, restoring fairness by correcting for past injustices. One may ask in this or similar cases whether the girl's academic achievement can be assessed on the same scale as the boys'--and thus whether she has a fair chance on that basis. If society or the educational system has discriminated against females in science (and there is strong evidence that it has), then her abilities will not have been given equal opportunity to grow or express themselves. The girl may, in fact, have equivalent or stronger(!) potential, though her actual achievement to date hides it. To not recognize her socially induced "handicap" would be to merely compound the original injustice. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, in a case where all individuals have not had equal access to opportunities in the past, "equal opportunity" in the present is not enough to ensure fairness. One must restore or accommodate past injustice, even at the apparent "cost" to others (who, in fact, have benefitted from those past disparities).

* * *

My own disposition in this case would be to recognize that science will be best promoted by more women in the field. This is a fine example for restitutive justice because it is hard to argue that the boys' future achievements will be diminished measurably by not receiving the fellowship, though they may not receive this one extra opportunity. Conversely, it could make a substantial difference in helping a marginal female student become a productive scientist. Because she has expressed adequate enthusiasm, she need not be the "best" academically: the committee can consider giving her the fellowship a "good investment" in better science. --Ed.



  • Frances Vandervoort (Chicago) reminds us of the superb special section in Science:

    "Gender and the Culture of Science," Science, April 16, 1993. Copies are available from AAAS for $2.95 ($1.95 for 10+). Contact: Connie Harris, 1333 H Street, NW, Washington DC 20005. Call (202) 326-6527

  • The National Women's History Project has assembled a display "Outstanding Women in Mathematics and Science"--with 23 full-page B+W photographs, each with a half-page biography. Item #2915, $12.

    They also distribute copies of a 16-page tabloid from the Philadelphia Daily News, "Women in Science." Includes interviews, historical notes, activities and puzzles. Item #8508, $2.50. Set of 25: #8510, $50. -- National Women's History Project, 7783 Bell Rd., Windsor CA 95492 / (707) 838-6000 FAX: 707-838-0478


links under construction !!
  • Florence Juillerat, who teaches biology at Purdue University, shares with us her "Essential Beginning Bibliography"

  • Stephen Brush, veteran historian of science and long-time supporter of women in science education, provided the list of major women scientists.

  • A more extensive, 10-page bibliog. is available from SHiPS member, Patsy Ann Giese. She has divided her list into sources for adults and sources appropriate for children or young adults. Write her with a large SASE and $1 for copying: Dept. of Secondary Education, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock PA 16057

  • Another 54-page list has been compiled by Susan Searing and Rima Apple at the Univ. of Wisconsin. Send $2.50 to: Women's Studies Librarian, Univ. of Wisconsin System, 112A Memorial Library, 728 State St., Madison WI 53706.


  • Women of Science: Righting the Record, G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes (eds.), Indiana Univ. Press (1990). ISBN 0-253-20813-0. 398ppp. --see review

  • Chelsea House publishes a series of biographies on American Women of Achievement for "young adult" readers (ages 10 and up). Included are: Elizabeth Blackwell (physician), Rachel Carson (marine biologist), Karen Horney (psychoanalyst), Barbara McClintock (geneticist) and Margaret Mead (anthropologist). Write: P.O. Box 914, 1974 Sproul Rd., Ste. 400, Broomall PA 19008-0914.

  • More Books listed at the end of each essay (links above).


  • The University of Minnesota has produced a 13-part radio series, "Science Lives: Women and Minorities in the Sciences." The complete series with study guide is $69.95. Individual programs are $9.95 each + $3 shipping:

    • #3 The Right Chemistry -- Gertrude Elion [an organic chemist and pharmacologist]
    • #5 Out of This World -- Mae Jemison
      "Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut candidate chosen by NASA, is a physician, dancer, choreographer, and chemical engineer. Before being selected by NASA, she worked as a Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa and in a refugee camp in Thailand."
    • #6 Interplanetary Voyages -- Mary Ross
    • #7 A Mover and Shaker -- Karen McNally [an experimental seismologist]
    • #8 Soul of a New Gene -- Lydia Villa-Komaroff
    • #10 Critical Masses -- Mildred Dresselhaus [ a solid-state physicist and electrical engineer]
    • #12 Science Abled -- Anne Swanson

    Write: Univ. of Minn. Media Distribution, Box 734, Mayo Memorial Bldg., 420 Delaware St., S.E., Minneapolis MN 55455 or call: (612) 624-7906.

  • "On the Surface" -- a 40-minute video on three female marine biologists working with the diving vehicle Alvin ($40). Contact Prairie Starfish Productions, P.O. Box 4309, Portsmouth NH 03802-4309.

  • "Women in Astronomy" -- a slide and infornation set by Sally Stephens and Scott Hildreth ($40). Contact: The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, San Francisco. Product #A5314.

Labs & Activities

This book offers 20 excellent life-science modules "designed to increase students' exposure both to female science role models and to hands-on, inquiry approach activities." Each module includes a brief biography of a female scientist (with photo), along with a related activity using a hands-on, inquiry approach, and/or problem-solving. Suggestions for leading the activities and for assessment, as well as handouts, are included.

The APS is offering two sample modules for free. One is on Maria Mayorga, an African-American in the US Army who researches the physiological effects of potentially toxic gases and shock waves, each resulting from explo-sions. The accompanying labs are on diffusion and using that as a model for diagnosing damaged lungs. The second features Sara Josephine Baker, who tracked down Typhoid Mary. The lab here situates students in a contemporary epidemiological "whodunit."

Many of the more familiar women scientists from history are includedóBarbara McClintock, Gerty Cori and Rachel Carson. But you will also find Ynez Mexia, a Mexican American botanist renowned for her field collections, and Beatrice Potter, who was a mycologist long before she created the endearing character of Peter Rabbit(!). This volume gets 4 stars (****) for highlighting women in science, for bringing history and social context into science, and for linking them to quality lab activities.

updated 6/20/07

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