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June 18, 2013

Science, Scientists and Feminism: How do you do what you do? – some reflections

Following an invitation by Dr Gaynor Sharp, a chemist, feminist, artist and STEM Ambassador, Professor Patricia Murphy, Dr Jacky Lawrence and Katerina Pateraki met with students and academic staff at the Universityof Warwickto discuss what science and feminism mean to them.

Patricia is Professor of Pedagogy and Assessment at the Open University with a focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); Jackie is Head of Warwick County Council’s Energy Team, where she is responsible for developing and implementing the county’s Energy Policy for properties; Katerina is Assistant Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering who specialises in emergency planning of natural disasters, health and humanitarian assistance. Whilst working in different fields, the three women share a passion for science.

Although the history of women scientists can be traced back at least 4000 years, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers. Recent studies show that women scientists earn still less than their male colleagues, that they are excluded from ‘Old Boys’ Clubs’ and that they are less likely to be promoted.

STEM ambassadors try to make science, technology, engineering and maths more inclusive. They encourage children of all genders, ethnic and social backgrounds to engage with STEM subjects and to consider careers in these fields.

Although it is important to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in STEM subjects, it would be wrong to reduce the feminist engagement with science to a call for more gender equality within the existing structures. Feminist thinkers critically interrogate the ways how science is done and taught, and they actively contribute to the body of scientific knowledge.

In 1938, Virginia Woolf famously declared'science, it would seem, is not sexless: he is a man, a father and infected too'.[1] According to Woolf and other feminist critics, scientific models and methods are not as objective and neutral as they might seem. Take the story of the sperm and the egg, for example. Do you still remember what you have learnt about the fertilisation of the egg in school? This story might sound familiar to you:

‘The egg is […] large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined,” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.” For this they need “energy,” “fuel,” so that with a “whiplashlike motion and strong lurches” they can “burrow through the egg coat” and “penetrate” it.’ (Martin 1991, p. 489)

In her 1991 essay ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’, Emily Martin analyses scientific literature on the subject. Her critical analysis of textbooks shows ‘how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm’ (ibid). Martin rejects this ‘scientific fairy tail’ of the fertilisation of the egg, because it fails to account for the complex interaction between the egg cell and the sperm cell. Recent research supports her critique.

Martin and other feminist thinkers argue that, implicitly or explicitly, all knowledges are gendered and situated. This does not mean that we have to give up on objectivity. The feminist biologist Donna Haraway, for example, promotes a notion of feminist objectivity that acknowledges the situated and partial nature of all knowledge. ‘Feminist objectivity’, notes Haraway, ‘means quite simply situated knowledges’ (Haraway 1988: 581). In a similar vein, the feminist philosopher Sandra Harding argues that it increases rather than diminishes the objectivity of research projects if authors introduce a ‘subjective element’ into the analysis (Harding 1987: 9). According to Harding the ‘best feminist analysis insists that the inquirer her/himself be placed in the same critical plane as the overt subject matter, thereby recovering the entire research process for scrutiny in the results of research’ (ibid.).

Drawing on Donna Haraway, Judith Butler and other thinkers, the feminist physicist Karen Barad argues that scientists do not merely describe and observe the world as it is. They engage in material-discursive practices that ‘make some identities or attributes intelligible (determinate) to the exclusion of others’ (Barad 2007: 208). According Barad, ‘[o]bjectivity and agency are bound up with issues of responsibility and accountability. Accountability must be thought of in terms of what matters and what is excluded from mattering’ (ibid.: 184).

It should be clear by now that when using the term ‘gendered knowledges’, we mean not only theories and methodologies about gender and sexuality (although they are central to our project). The Gendered Knowledges Project seeks to account for the gendered nature and situatedness of ideas, methods and spaces across the disciplines and to explore radical ideas and pedagogies that tend to be excluded from mattering in an academic context.



Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke UP.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’,Feminist Studies,14 (1988), 575-99.

Harding, Sandra. 1987. Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues (Bloomington, Ind. and Milton Keynes:IndianaUniv.P./Open Univ. P.).

Martin, Emily. 1991. ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’,Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society,(16) 1991, 485-501.


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