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Women and Science + Diversity Rules (B2-C1)

Luglio 2019
La scienza è un settore dominato dagli uomini, alcuni dei quali pensano ancora che le donne siano fisicamente inadatte per certe professioni. Smentiamo questa affermazione che non ha alcun fondamento scientifico e va contro il principio di oggettività.

di Alex Phillips © The Institute of Art and Ideas

Rita Levi Montalcini won the Nobel Prize in 1986
Rita Levi Montalcini won the Nobel Prize in 1986

Speaker: Alex Warner (British accent)

Modern science originated in the Enlightenment period when brilliant European thinkers championed the unbiased pursuit of truth through the rigorous analysis of evidence. Britain’s Royal Society, founded in 1660, became extremely active. The oldest national scientific society in the world, it is still one of the leading organisations for the promotion of scientific research on the planet.


Unfortunately, this so-called scientific revolution made some extraordinary and subjective omissions. Largely drawing on the ideas and ideals of white upper-class men, it furthered a science that reinforced the perception that this minor demographic group was dominant. In Britain, women got the vote in 1918, but the Royal Society blocked female members until 1945.


Still today, significantly fewer women study science than men. Worryingly, high-profile figures are feeling free to publish studies the results of which find that women are physically unfit for the sciences. This so-called evidence is inconclusive, many argue, and persistently ignores the effects of environmental factors, such as the lack of opportunities and encouragement. But once the message is made public, it is difficult to challenge.


This has led to some feminist thinkers arguing for a radically different, ‘feminist’ way of doing science. But what exactly is that? Some argue that claiming that women think differently to men, or even that women are better than their male counterparts would simply impose another form of bias onto the sciences.   



Speaker: Alex Warner (British accent)

As with maths and engineering, science is still a male-dominated industry. Is this ‘only natural’? Are women simply better at other subjects? Or is it the consequence of centuries of neglect, prejudice and paranoia against women, undermining the principle of objectivity on which modern science is based? Angela Saini writes for magazines New Scientist and Wired. She begins by putting the problem of scientific bias into context:

Angela Saini (English accent):

Charles Darwin wrote in his private correspondence and in his public papers that women were intellectually inferior to men. And the way he came to this conclusion was by looking at women in Victorian society. So he didn’t see women in powerful positions, he didn’t see as many women scientists. He didn’t really consider that women at that time didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have access to higher education, they were barred from the scientific academies. Which is surprising, given how careful a scientist he was in every other respect. And that was true of many Victorian male biologists.


Saini suggests that Victorian men felt threatened by female liberation, accepting vague theories based on assumptions of men’s sexual superiority.

Angela Saini:

One of the cornerstones of all these ideas about female behaviour and female intellectual capability rested on sexual differences between men and women, so this idea [arose] that men were promiscuous and that they had out-evolved women because they had to be impressive to attract as many females as possible, whereas women were sexually chaste because they just wanted to find the one best possible father for their child, and that they were passive as a result… Victorians, when they looked at the women around them, of course they see modesty because for two thousand or three thousand years they’d been controlling, deliberately repressing their sexuality.


Cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon points to how this lazy science continued into the 20th century, and was disseminated through the education system. She uses the example of a survey from the 1960s.

Gina Rippon (English accent):

Somebody was interested in getting girls’ and boys’ views of what they thought scientists were like, and this was a questionnaire given out in schools. The boys were given a questionnaire: “If I were going to be a scientist, I should like to be the kind of scientist who …” The girls were given a questionnaire: “If I were going to marry a scientist, I should like to marry the kind of scientist who …”


And there have been some alarmingly recent examples of sexism, even from among the staff of the so-called ‘progressive’ tech industry.  

Gina Rippon:

We had [a] Google memo when an engineer saw fit to say that Google was wasting their time with diversity initiatives because women were constitutionally unable to do science, not because there was [were] not enough of these good initiatives. We have a deeply-flawed paper about the relationship between brain size and IQ; because men have got on average bigger brains and that’s correlated with IQ, the reason we haven’t got enough women in science is because they “can’t cope.” That’s 2018. It’s still an issue.


And the biggest impact of bullying is on female scientists’ self-confidence, says Rippon.

Gina Rippon:

Girls’ experience of education is very different and they bring that into the scientific arena. They probably don’t get such big grants or they are the person who doesn’t get acknowledged, doesn’t put themselves forward. I think the way science is moving now, it really needs collaboration. I think a feminist way of doing science would encourage that.


Janet Kourany is a Professor of Gender Studies. She talks about some of the ways that feminism is being applied to specific scientific fields.

Janet Kourany (American accent):

What unifies feminists is that they all subscribe to feminist values, egalitarian values. And that shapes the way they do science. Feminist astrophysicists have said: “Well, we don’t raise different questions from our non-feminist colleagues, we don’t make different kinds of observations... However, we structure our laboratories differently. We don’t have very hierarchical organisations.” Many in biology and the social sciences, their feminist values have sensitised them to sexist biases in previous science. In the way that research was conducted, sometimes their questions and their concepts are the same, but then they are disagreeing with the way that their colleagues have articulated these concepts or applied these values. And then you have more radical departures on the part of some feminists in some fields, and they are really calling into question the values of previous science. Sometimes in something like primatology they’ve revolutionised their field with this.


Science is not gendered but empirical, says Kourany. A fairer and more diverse science results in a more rigorous approach and better conclusions:

Janet Kourany:

There are men and women who are feminist, there are men and women who are sexist, and the men have agreed and questions have changed, sometimes goals have changed... modes of procedure, modes of gathering data have changed accordingly, so you have a greater diversity.   

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