It is with some trepidation that I put fingers to keyboard to write this blog. I raised the topic with my Literary Agent about a possible book and he said, ‘you can write what you want but make sure you don’t come across as a ranting feminist.’ Oh dear, not a good start! So if I say that it has come to my attention that science and more specifically the process of scientific research is very sexist, it immediately earmarks me as a raging, fundamentalist, feminist and possibly a lesbian to boot. I would like to quickly reassure you that I am happily married to a man who is so masculine he is almost ape-like in his communication skills, I like to collect vintage crockery, my favourite colour is pink and I consider myself to be very feminine.
I was listening to Radio 4 a few months ago and the discussion about gender intelligence lodged in the deeper recesses of my brain unthought-of until recently when I went to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking of her ‘Eureka’ moment. She discovered the existence of neutron stars called Pulsar’s in 1967 and I think she can safely be considered one of England’s most pioneering and gifted scientists. I was struck by her comments that she intuitively knew she had discovered these stars months before it was proved. Her colleagues (mostly male) didn’t believe her until she systematically followed due scientific process and offered a logical and evidence based explanation of what she knew to be right.
The part of this I find interesting is the role of male and female intelligence and their role in science. At this point I think I may change my definition of the different types of intelligence. I prefer to use ‘Masculine Intelligence’ to describe a step-by-step, logical approach to problem solving and ‘Feminine Intelligence’ to describe an intuitive approach to problem solving. The distinction being that it is possible for a man to have a more feminine intelligence and vice-versa rather than brain power being defined purely by your private parts. Although I think on the whole the general differences in gender still hold true.
Much like Sheril Kirshenbaum, who recently wrote ‘Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness’ I spent much of my youth as a tomboy. I would often be called down for supper from the branches of the tallest tree in my neighbourhood and preferred building blocks to Barbies. This behaviour was to some extent reinforced by my Mother who I think I can safely say is a feminist. She associated being a man with freedom and to be free I was encouraged to compete with men on their playing field. Art was very much frowned upon, only science would do.
So now I am a scientist and an engineer. My Civil Engineering undergraduate course comprised of roughly 60 students, about 7 of which were female. My time spent designing and building roads in Chicago was very enjoyable but slightly marred by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to go on-site because I might ‘distract the construction workers.’
My environmental science PhD, ultimately an achievement I’m very proud of, took an excruciatingly long time to complete. Within a year I felt I knew what needed to be done and then spent and additional four years desperately trying to unpick my own thinking in order to satisfy the requirements of my peers as to what is constituted as adequate scientific research.
I posed a question to Jocelyn during her talk. ‘Do you think that women are more intuitively than logically intelligent and do you think that as scientific research has been designed to only include this logical, evidence based approach, it alienates women?’ Her response was that in order for her to be successful in science she became a ‘Shemale.’ I’ll take that as a yes then.
Marie Curie perhaps one of the most famous female scientists that ever lived is quoted to have said ‘I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.’ In other words, she preferred to use her intuition rather than examine the evidence.
The question I am really asking here is, is the entire structure of scientific research sexist? Is there no scope to include this more feminine intelligence? And more importantly, is our society significantly losing out as a result? A survey published in the Guardian revealed that only 4% of women want to be engineers (more would prefer to be a housewife) and only 14% would consider science careers. Perhaps the lack of scope for feminine intelligence may explain why such a small proportion of women even consider science careers much less proactively pursue them. The trouble is, in order to find out if there is any truth in this theory we must use science to test it and as it stands, science may be wholly inadequate to do so.