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This article was prepared for the April 24, 2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Can Gender Issues Skew Science?
Beatrix Potter, author of "Peter Rabbit," was
also a frustrated scientist. "She was the first person to describe
studying the history of science. Schmitt says that Potter took up
illustration because science was not considered a fit occupation for
her a woman of her era. The beloved writer’s depictions of animals
and plants grew out of her fascination with science. Had Potter been
a man, says Schmitt, she most likely would have presented her findings
on lichen at the Royal Academy rather than in the pages of a
Potter’s story is illustrative of the hurdles women have faced —
and still do — in the pursuit of a career in science. The
dearth of women in many sciences has had an effect not only on them,
says Schmitt, but on the nature of scientific inquiry itself. On
April 25, at 6 p.m. Schmitt speaks on "Gender Issues in
at a meeting of the Association of Women in Science at Rider
Schmitt studied biology at Vassar (Class of 1973), did graduate
in plant science at the University of Wisconsin, and "took a lot
of temporary research positions" while her husband was completing
his graduate work. From 1988 through 1995, she worked at American
Cyanamid, first in lab work, and then in technical writing and
She began work on her Ph.D. in the history of science in 1997.
Women are making strides in some of the sciences, she says, but not
in others. There have been gains in naming biology, medicine, and
anthropology. And botany, she says, "has long been considered
socially appropriate for women." There has been less progress
in math and in the physical sciences. There is a question, she says,
on the reason that women are not entering, or advancing, in these
fields. "The debate rages," she says, with some claiming that
women have a genetic pre-disposition against math and sciences that
demand substantial skill in math, and others blaming the gender
on cultural factors.
Beyond an inclination to study science, women may be handicapped,
Schmitt observes, by common academic policies, such as the system
of awarding tenure during what are generally a woman’s child bearing
years. "It’s hard to do it alone," she says of the pursuit
of a high level career in science. "Men often have a full-time
wife at home. Women don’t." This is starting to change, she says,
as more universities allow a husband and wife to split an academic
position. Still, it is generally more difficult for a woman to combine
a climb up the scientific ladder with family responsibilities.
The resulting lack of women in science — now and in the past —
has skewed science itself, Schmitt asserts. She points to the study
of baboons as an example. Male baboons have been studied extensively,
and females less so. The resulting view of the females as passive
leaves out a lot. "Some are out fighting for territory," she
The bias shows up in language and in metaphors, too. "We speak
of `passive’ eggs and `active’ sperm," she gives as an example.
No one thinks much about the implications, but the language itself
enters consciousness, helping to form opinions of the roles of males
In science, Schmitt has observed, women tend to follow the roles men
establish. "In so many cases," she says, "women have
to the style of science men set. But that is changing."
The change comes too late for Beatrix Potter, a fact Peter Rabbit’s
many fans may have trouble regretting.
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