February 2017


The science question and feminism

By Margaret Wertheim
STEM is the future, and women need to be part of it

“Feminism” isn’t a four-letter word in Australia. The same cannot be said in the US, where I’ve been living for the past 25 years. Even among my liberal American friends many hesitate to identify with the term, and a common phrase I hear from young women on campuses across the country when I’m giving lectures is “I’m not a feminist, but …”

The difference between the two nations was powerfully brought home to me recently when I attended the Victorian Women’s Trust “Breakthrough” conference at the Melbourne Town Hall. Over two days, before an almost thousand-strong audience, 130 speakers celebrated the achievements of feminism and began the task of mapping out an agenda for realising gender equality.

Speaker after speaker reminded us how far we have come while also describing the distance still to go. Highlights included Rosie Batty on domestic violence; three female politicians – Labor, Liberal and an independent – discussing quotas and glass ceilings, with even an admiring nod to Pauline Hanson; and actor Rachel Griffiths delivering a lyrical meditation on the dire outcome of the American election and its consequences for her daughters.

New Zealand human-rights activist Marilyn Waring closed with a rousing speech on the “lie” of gross domestic product (GDP) and its failure still to include, in assessments of national wealth, much of the work that women do. As Waring noted, several revisions to the way GDP is calculated have resulted in such inclusions as the “value” of unused weapons and unexploded bombs, but have yet to extend to parenting or to breast milk, a commodity that the writer Peggy O’Mara has priced out as worth approximately $30 billion a year to the US economy alone.

Topics at Breakthrough ranged from misogynistic online trolling to religious faith, law reform and gender inequities in superannuation. Writers, broadcasters, academics, athletes, entrepreneurs, cartoonists, comedians, refugee advocates, Indigenous activists, body-image experts, trade unionists and musicians stirred our neuronal juices and caused us to cheer, cry and whoop with laughter at the wondrous conundrum of being a woman in the 21st century.

Absent from the agenda was any discussion of science.

I raise this not as a point of criticism but rather with a note of sadness, and also a hint of alarm.

As a science communicator, I’ve made it my mission over a 30-year career to try to share the joys and importance of science with the public, especially women. Why, I wondered, in a conference so diverse wasn’t there a single session on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with the exception, I suppose, of the one on internet harassment?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. According to a 2015 report by consulting firm PwC, around 75% of the fastest-growing Australian job categories require STEM training, while 40% of the country’s jobs are at risk of being eliminated by technological developments.

During a keynote address to the Australian Engineering Conference in November, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel pointed out that “China is run by an engineer. The CEOs of Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are engineers. In fact, of the ten largest American companies on the US stock exchange as of last week, five are run by engineers, three are run by Bachelors of Science, and one is run by a Bachelor of Applied Mathematics.”

People trained in STEM subjects don’t just make stuff, they make money. Sometimes, tons of it.

Of the 100 billionaires on the 2016 Forbes list of the Richest People in Tech, just five are women.

According to the latest survey of the Australian engineering profession, in 2011, only 9.7% of our engineers are women, and of the total STEM workforce 28% are women. That’s in contrast to the 55% of tertiary-qualified Australian professionals who are women. On the whole, STEM jobs pay well, so women are missing out here on a significant pool of employment at a time when well-paid jobs of any description are getting harder to come by.

Following Marilyn Waring’s example, I don’t want to over-valorise making money, although gender gaps in pay and related economic factors were a huge part of the agenda for the Breakthrough conference.

People trained in STEM disciplines may also go on to powerful positions in other fields, including politics. The new secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, is an engineer, along with China’s current president, Xi Jinping, and his two predecessors.

As Malcolm Turnbull seems to endlessly stress, we live in an age of “innovation” – of new medical technologies, energy systems, agricultural technologies, materials (electronics, opticals, composites), vehicles (driverless cars, bullet trains), communications tools, software. Whether we agree or disagree with this arc of history, a substantial part of our future economic viability as a nation is bound up with how STEM-savvy we will be. As Australia implements its “innovation strategies”, women should be part of the planning and shaping of policy, and sharing in the rewards. We can’t do that if we don’t have the training. Or the interest.

Which brings me to the sadness I felt at Breakthrough. I’d trained as a physicist not because I wanted to invent a better microchip but because I loved the subject. I went into science communication to share that passion, and from the start I made a commitment to engaging women. I’m proud to say that (to my knowledge) I am the only journalist in the world who’s written a regular science column for Vogue – and I can state from experience that it’s harder to write about cosmology for a fashion magazine than for New Scientist or the New York Times.

In 1990 I conceived and wrote a six-part ABC television science series aimed at teenage girls. Over the past decade I’ve been spearheading an international science and art project that’s engaged nearly 10,000 women in a dozen countries: we’ve been collectively crocheting sculptural installations of coral reefs in an enterprise that deals with climate change, ecological destruction and the foundations of geometry.

At heart I’m a scientist. I’m also a feminist. But in my experience these two domains almost never intersect. While feminists often see science as peripheral to their concerns, too many scientists tend to view feminism as an irrelevant and potentially hostile force.

Why either side should care about the other has been a subject of intense study by a small group of (mainly) American feminist science studies scholars since the 1980s.

There are two angles to be considered here: “Why should feminists care about science?” and “Why should scientists care about feminism?”

The first is actually easier to articulate, in part for the pragmatic reasons I’ve discussed above. Apple, Google and Facebook et al sit at epicentres of national and international policymaking. They work, and often collude, with governments on a wide spectrum of technological and scientific issues that matter to us all, from surveillance to accessing and acquiring medical data. If women are to achieve equality and participate fully in future decision-making about critical social issues, we cannot cede this territory.

But let me also make a philosophical case, as science studies scholars such as Evelyn Fox Keller did 30 years ago. In post-Enlightenment society, science has become a source of immense epistemological power. How we talk about reality these days is bound up with scientific theories and discoveries, be they in the realm of psychology, medicine, evolution, environmentalism, cognition or cosmology.

Ever since science replaced religion as the foundation of Western society’s official world picture, it has had a central place in our thinking about what it means to be human. One of the goals of feminist science studies – like Waring’s challenge to the patriarchal assumptions embedded in measurements of GDP – is to interrogate and challenge unconscious biases. The idea that science rests on a purely objective set of presuppositions is, like the fallacy of a socially neutral GDP, a myth.

And that’s why feminism also has something to offer science. When new cohorts of people with different social and psychological experiences come into science, science itself can expand in directions it might not have done without those voices. The geneticist Barbara McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering jumping genes. McClintock changed our fundamental understanding of how genes work, and Fox Keller has convincingly argued that her radical take on the subject was due in part to her unorthodox background – her gender. That doesn’t mean all her ideas came from her experiences as a woman, but in this and other cases women have brought pioneering ideas to the scientific table, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that at least some of this stems from our different socialisation.

One of the propositions put forward by feminist science studies scholars is that in science, as in economics (the “dismal science”), definitions matter. Concepts matter. Terminology matters. Who gets to determine definitions and concepts matters. That doesn’t mean all science is relative. The strength of the force of gravity isn’t up for grabs. The binary opposition between “relativism” and “objectivism” is also a false dichotomy, and we urgently need ways of discussing how scientific ideas can be useful and true without falling into the fallacy that they are the whole truth, or “nothing but” the truth.

In the way that I understand feminism, one of its objectives is to open out our comprehension of what it means to be human and to tease out how our ideas about “truth” relate to our experiences in our necessarily multiple modalities of human-being-ness. Marilyn Waring has shown us the necessity of doing this in economics, yet how much vaster is the whole domain of science?

As I was leaving the Breakthrough conference with my mother, Barbara Wertheim, a pioneering second-wave feminist who helped set up Australia’s first national women’s refuge program, we ran into Anne Summers, who had MC-ed some of the sessions. My mother asked her old friend if she thought that women today – with all the demands from our jobs and our families – have time to be activists, lobbying as she and her peers had tirelessly done in the 1970s for the changes young women now take for granted. Summers shot back the perfect answer: “They don’t have time not to.”

Summers is drafting a Women’s Manifesto to outline what needs to be done to achieve gender equality. I asked if the document would include any mention of science. For a moment this indefatigable woman looked weary. Then, perking up, she made an analogy with a Christmas tree in danger of becoming overloaded with decorations. “We must make certain the trunk of the tree is strong,” she said.

I knew immediately what she meant. We feminists are already carrying an enormous load. We are charging ourselves with nothing less than the transformation of society. We are trying to theorise about radical changes in how work is conceived, time apportioned, money allotted, effort acknowledged, care rewarded. And we’re trying to shepherd these changes through complex social and political minefields. Feminism at its core is a project of re-conceiving and re-engineering the human condition. We cannot do everything at once. But, echoing Summers, I would argue in relation to STEM that at this pivotal point in history we don’t have time not to engage.

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is the author of six books, including Pythagoras’ Trousers, a history of physics, religion and women, and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the TLS, the Washington Post, the WSJ and the Guardian. Her work is included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016. Her Crochet Coral Reef project is the largest participatory art+science endeavor in the world.

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