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This article was prepared for the April 24, 2002 edition of

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Can Gender Issues Skew Science?

Beatrix Potter, author of "Peter Rabbit," was

also a frustrated scientist. "She was the first person to describe

lichen," says Gail Schmitt, a Princeton graduate student

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

children’s

book.

Potter’s story is illustrative of the hurdles women have faced —

and still do — in the pursuit of a career in science. The

resulting

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

Thursday,

April 25, at 6 p.m. Schmitt speaks on "Gender Issues in

Science"

at a meeting of the Association of Women in Science at Rider

University.

Call 609-702-9357.

Schmitt studied biology at Vassar (Class of 1973), did graduate

studies

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

editing.

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

disparity

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

says.

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

and females.

In science, Schmitt has observed, women tend to follow the roles men

establish. "In so many cases," she says, "women have

adapted

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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