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