Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Monday Book: A disappointingly elitist solution




A GEOLOGIST friend of mine once ruefully remarked that all she needed in order to get a good job was a beard. She had noticed that everyone who was anybody in her field of science had one. It's the kind of niggling observation that Londa Schiebinger struggles to make sense of in her latest book.

Schiebinger, a historian of science at Pennsylvania State University, has carved out an academic niche for herself trawling the past for signs of gender politics in the early days of the biological sciences. It turns out to be easy to find. Many proto-scientists, the natural philosophers, delighted in likening their pursuit of knowledge of the natural world with the rape or torture of women forcibly stripped of their concealing garments. Some years down the line, researchers tirelessly generated data to show that women were inherently incapable of rational thought as their brains were too small or their hormones all wrong.

In this well-written overview, Schiebinger attempts to bring the story up to date, and tackle three problems: "getting more women into science, reforming the cultures of science, and opening new questions for research". She wants to know whether the women's movement in general - and the recent entry of women into science in particular - have made a difference.

This is a useful book for newcomers to these debates, summarising in an accessible way much of the research in gender and science. But sadly, it's not entirely clear how Schiebinger would answer the question her title poses.

From the outset, she is careful to undermine any simple reading of women's history as unremitting progress, and points instead to "cycles of advancement and retrenchment". For instance, the number of women earning science PhDs and medical degrees in the US peaked in 1910, and has yet to recover from postwar campaigns to return women to the home and "remasculinise" science. And in 1700, 14 per cent of German astronomers were women - a far bigger proportion than Germany or the US can boast today.

Apparently, in the latter half of the 17th century, women could work with fathers and husbands, making observations from home-based observatories. Today, by contrast, would-be women astronomers have to battle against powerful institutions for access to the world's few top telescopes. Thus "two key developments in European science and society - the privatisation of the family and the professionalisation of science" - have conspired to exclude women from participating in scientific enterprises.

Today's mix of public and private life is not particularly auspicious for women scientists. All the same, Schiebinger is cautiously optimistic, noting that in 1995, 23 per cent of American scientists and engineers were women. But her upbeat tone grows less convincing when she turns to consider whether feminist ideals have discernably altered the content of science.

She sees in the contemporary American medical research industry "one of the best examples of success for feminsm". The federal government has begun to pour money into "neglected areas of women's health, such as osteoporosis and heart disease". But, as history shows, making women the subjects of research is not in itself enough to ensure a happy outcome. The only certain result of this "initiative" will be more women on more long-term medication - a boon for the pharmaceutical industry, but not a clear win for womankind.

Her strongest case for feminist influence lies in the broad study of human evolution: in palaeoanthropology, archaeology and primatology. Here, women researchers, sometimes self-confessed feminists, have helped to undermine the stale old story of "man the hunter" as the sole driving force in early human history. They have redefined "first tools" to include pots and pestles and gathering bags, as well as stone axes and arrowheads, and questioned gender assumptions about who made what, who did what. But even here success is limited: Schienbinger reports that since the 1980s, "new perspectives on women's role in evolution have not been built into a new theoretical synthesis but have been largely dismissed." One fashionable theory apparently centres on "man the provisioner" - co-opting even gathering as a male activity - and putting women and babies firmly back in the cave. Why the setback?

In Schiebinger's concise account, there is little scope to explore such puzzles. Nor can she shed any light on the niggling absence of gender critiques of physics and mathematical knowledge. Instead, she reverts to her earlier theme and looks at various attempts to explain why so few women specialise in these fields.

Schiebinger ends with recommendations that strike me as disappointingly elitist and even a bit self-serving. What we need, she says, is to make science students take courses on the history of gender in science. She also wants the US Congress to launch a "women's science and engineering initiative" that would "support analysis of gender in the content of the sciences". She sees this initiative as a "collaborative effort joining the expertise of scientists, anthropologists, historians and theorists". Well, why not. But would the initiative change science? Somehow, I doubt it.