The Role of Science in the Struggle for Equality

Janet A. Kourany

University of Notre Dame


In the World

*In most countries there is a greater preference for male children than female children. In China, Korea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt, Syria, Haiti, Colombia, Costa Rica, and many other countries, female babies and female fetuses are killed because they are of the "wrong" sex. In Asia alone, the number of "vanished" females has reached 100 million. Relatedly, male children frequently receive better nutrition, health care, and support than female children.

*Domestic violence against women is common in all regions and cultures. For example, in the years 1986 to 1993, 60 percent of Chilean women, 59 percent of Japanese women, 46 percent of Ugandan women, 41 percent of Belgian women, 27-36 percent of Canadian women, and 25 percent of Norwegian women reported physical abuse by a male partner. Concluded the 1989 United Nations report "Violence Against Women in the Family": "In the end analysis, it is perhaps best to conclude that violence against wives is a function of the belief, fostered in all cultures, that men are superior and that the women they live with are their possessions or chattels that they can treat as they wish and as they consider appropriate."

*While rape is an ever-present fear of women worldwide, most of the world's rape laws conceive of rape as an offence against men--either the fathers of unmarried women or the husbands of married ones. Similarly, in war rape is regularly used by one side's soldiers as the ultimate humiliation and punishment of the men on the other side. For example, in Rwanda in 1994 an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped in less than 100 days, and in the former Yugoslavia Bosnian Serb soldiers raped between 20,000 and 50,000 Muslim women.

*According to the United Nations, women worldwide almost always hold the less prestigious and lower-paying jobs and do most of the household labor and child care. While the gender pay gap varies from country to country (e.g., women employed outside of the home in Japan earn 51 percent of what men earn, while they earn 71 percent in the United Kingdom and 96 percent in Sri Lanka), women all over the world fare worse than men by almost all economic measures. Of the 1.3 billion people in poverty, 70 percent are women.

In the United States:

*Every 15 seconds a woman is battered. Indeed, battery is the leading cause of injury to adult women. More than half of all married women will experience some form of violence from their spouses during marriage, and more than one-third will be battered repeatedly. But women who leave their batterers are at a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by them as those who stay. Domestic violence kills as many women every five years as the total number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

*One out of every eight adult women has been the victim of forcible rape, usually by someone she knows, but 98 percent of rape victims never see the arrest or prosecution of their attackers. More than 30 percent of rape victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder, around 30 percent develop major depression, more than 30 percent contemplate suicide, and more than 10 percent actually attempt suicide. The United States has the highest reported rate of rape in the world.

*Standards of feminine beauty (and thereby, feminine acceptability) are remarkably detrimental to women's health. For example, the current emphasis on thinness has encouraged eating disorders (it is estimated that 5 to 10 million females suffer from some type of eating disorder), the current emphasis on large breasts has encouraged breast implants (with attendant risks ranging from leaking and rupture of the implant and loss of sensation in the breast to autoimmune disorders and fibrositis), and the current emphasis on tanned skin has encouraged prolonged sun-bathing and use of tanning salons (creating a skin-cancer epidemic as well as premature aging of women's skin).

*Even though women earn higher grades than men (in the same classes) in both high school and college, women consistently receive lower scores on standardized tests such as the SAT, PSAT, and ACT (which, therefore, fail in their mission of predicting scholastic success). Among the consequences are fewer scholarships awarded to women.

*In virtually every profession--business, higher education, medicine, law, sports--women earn less money and achieve lower status than men. For example, a major study published in 1996 by the National Science Foundation found that women's median income from all scientific disciplines combined--mathematics, computer specialties, psychology, the social sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering--was 78 percent of men's income. And only 60 percent of the women held tenure or tenure-track positions, compared with 77 percent of the men.

*In 1997 more than 40 percent of families composed of women raising children on their own had incomes below the poverty line (the rate was even higher for African-American and Latina families). What's more, few states had programs to ensure that women removed from welfare found work that would sustain them and their children. In addition, more than one third of all elderly women (about two thirds of all African American and Latina elderly women) were living in or near poverty.

            After "three waves" of feminist activism in the United States, and centuries of feminist thought and activism around the world, women are still not the social equals of men. The above items only begin to tell the story. Prostitution and pornography and the trafficking of women, female genital mutilation and honor killings, restrictions related to reproduction and gender socialization and sexual harrassment, and more problems still, need to be added to the above items to give a complete understanding of women's situation. Even so, the above items manage to convey some of the central problems women confront--that women the world over are thought inferior to men, and hence, deserving of inferior jobs, inferior wages, and inferior treatment both in the home and out of it.

            Science can be a powerful ally in the fight for equality for women. What other institution than science, after all, can expose society's prejudice against women for what it is? What other institution than science can both justify the replacement of this prejudice with a more adequate perspective, and also move society to accept the replacement? For the most part, however, science has done more to perpetuate and add to the problems women confront than to solve them. For example, psychology's central assertion, historically, has been that women are inferior to men--intellectually, socially, sexually, and even morally. And biology historically has set for itself the task of explaining the basis and origin of this inferiority in terms of what is basically unchangeable--biology. This has had the effect of justifying--and thus, helping to perpetuate--women's inferior educational and employment opportunities as well as women's inferior positions in the family, government, and other social institutions.

            Consider women's intellectual capacity, for example. For centuries it was claimed that women are intellectually inferior to men, and for centuries the basis for such inferiority was sought in biology. In the seventeenth century, women's brains were claimed to be too "cold" and "soft" to sustain rigorous thought. In the late eighteenth century, the female cranial cavity was claimed to be too small to hold a powerful brain. In the late nineteenth century, the exercise of women's brains was claimed to be damaging to women's reproductive health--was claimed, in fact, to shrivel women's ovaries. In the twentieth century, the less "lateralization" (hemispheric specialization) of women's brains was claimed to make women inferior in visuospatial skills (including mathematical skills). And the research continues. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, scientists claimed that women's brains are smaller than men's, even after taking into account average differences in body size, that the corpus callosum (the mass of nerve fibers connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres) is more slender in women's brains than in men's, that the splenium (the region of the corpus callosum found at the back of the head) is more bulbous in women's brains, more tubular in men's brains, and so on. And these differences were again being linked to differences in intellectual capacity (that people with smaller brains have lower IQ test scores, that greater splenial bulbosity means less lateralization, and hence, less visual-spatial ability, and hence, less mathematical ability, etc.). And the research still continues.

            But fields like psychology and biology are not the only source of the view that women are inferior to men--demonstrably inferior, scientifically demonstrable. The historical sciences, too, have supported this view of women's inferiority through their mode of representation of the past, a mode of representation marked by heroic exploits and spectacular accomplishments of men counterpoised with lackluster doings and non-accomplishments of women. Consider archaeology. Archaeologists "have contributed to and perpetuated certain limited and ethnocentric (i.e. sexist) views on women and gender relations." Take, for example, what archaeologists recognize as the "hallmarks" of human evolution--tools, fire, hunting, food-storage, composite tools, language, agriculture, metallurgy, and so forth. Most of these hallmarks of human-ness are associated with technological control of the environment (technological control, after all, has always defined the "Ages of Man": Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age), and all of these hallmarks of human-ness have until very recently been at least tacitly associated with males (e.g., "The most visible activity in the archaeological record is stone tool fabrication, an exclusively male endeavor." etc., etc.). As a result, male-as-active, instrumental (as in man-the-toolmaker), male-as-provider, male-as-innovator, male-as-quintessentially-human, are made to seem natural, inevitable. At the same time, female-as-outside-the-domain of-technological-innovation-and-control, female-as-not-active (that is, passive) and less-than-quintessentially-human, are made to seem natural and inevitable as well, and thus capable of explaining (and justifying) the gender inequalities we still find today.

            Other scientific fields perpetuate or add to the problems women confront, but in different ways than by documenting women's inferiority. Consider economics, for example. The central concept in current mainstream economics ("neoclassical" economics) is that of "the market," a place where rational, autonomous, self-interested agents with stable preferences interact for the purposes of exchange. These agents may be individual persons or collectives of various kinds, such as corporations, labor unions, and governments. The agents, in either case, exchange goods or services, with money facilitating the transactions; and the tool of choice for analyzing these transactions is mathematics. Indeed, high status is assigned in economics to formal mathematical models of rational choice. What tends to remain invisible, however, or inadequately treated, are women.

            Take women's experiences in the family. Since the focus in mainstream economics is on the "public" realm (industry and government), "private" collectives such as the family tend to get scant attention. And since the prototype for economic agents is individual masculine persons, when families are attended to, they are most commonly treated as if they were individuals themselves, with all their internal workings a "black box." Or they are treated as if they had a dominant "head" who makes all the decisions in accordance with "his" own (perhaps altruistic) preferences. Either way of treating the family, of course, leaves women invisible as agents in their own right in the family. More recently, however, families have been treated by some economists as (cooperative or noncooperative) collective decision-making partnerships. But since, here as elsewhere in mainstream economics, the focus is on simplified mathematical models portraying the interactions of rational, autonomous agents, these collective decision-making partnerships end by being models of marital couples. Children, not yet fully rational, certainly not autonomous, and threatening to the tractability of the models, are either conceptualized as "consumption goods" or not conceptualized at all. Left invisible, therefore, are women in the family as care-givers, as agents who historically have borne the bulk of the responsibility for the nurturance and education of children, and the care of the sick and elderly. The upshot is that women's needs and priorities in families are left invisible, and with them, the impact on women of public policies:

Any model of the effect of price changes, or taxes or transfers on family behavior must, implicitly or explicitly, rely on a theory of how families function. Beyond the social scientists' need to understand, lies the policy-makers' need to make wise policies. Better knowledge about what is happening in the family could improve policies related to child poverty and child support, household-sector savings rates, welfare and job training, the tax treatment of dependents and family-related expenses, social security, elder care, healthcare, and inheritance taxation, to name a few areas.

And worse knowledge about what is happening in the family--which is what we've got--does not aid policies related to children and poverty and welfare and job training and elder care and healthcare--and at the center of it all, women.

            Of course, science has also produced much of the available information regarding the problems of inequality women confront, and scientists have provided some of the wherewithal for solving those problems. Psychologists, for example, have explored at least some of women's "inferiority"-- lack of assertiveness, low self-esteem, poor self-confidence, under-estimation and under-valuation of achievements--and have explained this inferiority in terms of women's oppression, and anthropologists have provided abundant evidence to show that such inferiority is not universal. Psychologists have also devised "compensatory socialization" type therapy and various self-help type programs, as well as "public health" type approaches (e.g., for domestic violence), in response. But much of this work has been done by feminist scientists on the margins of their fields. This again shows that science can be a powerful ally in the fight for equality for women, but for the most part has not been.

            And this is wrong. Or so it would seem. After all, society--both women and men--ultimately pays for science. And society is deeply affected by science: science shapes our lives, not least of all by shaping our consciousness of ourselves. As Heschel pointed out a long time ago: "The truth of a theory about man is either creative or irrelevant, but never merely descriptive. A theory about the stars never becomes a part of the being of the stars. A theory about man enters his consciousness, determines his self-understanding, and modifies his very existence. The image of a man affects the nature of man.... We become what we think of ourselves." It would seem, therefore, that science should be deeply responsive to the needs of society. But surely, one of the needs of society--of both women and men--is justice, and equality for women is one aspect of that justice. It would seem, therefore, that science should be an ally in the fight for equality for women.

But if science should be an ally in the fight for equality for women, in what sorts of ways should it be an ally? Consider four suggestions, two related to research funding and two to the evaluation of that research. First, funding for research of interest and benefit to women should be significantly increased, so that scientists are encouraged to pursue such research, while funding for research that neglects women's interests and needs should be markedly reduced. This is, for example, what happened in U.S. funded medical research in 1993 when Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act that mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in U.S. medical research, and made funding contingent on that inclusion. Because of this act and the lobbying efforts of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, for example, funding for breast cancer research more than quadrupled within three years--from $90 million in 1991 to $410 million in 1993. Second, and more radically, funding for research that promises support for egalitarian views (e.g., research that seeks to explain different levels of success between men and women on the basis of social factors) should be significantly increased, so that scientists are encouraged to pursue such research, while funding for research that promises support for inegalitarian views (e.g., research that seeks to explain different levels of success on the basis of biological differences) should be markedly reduced. Third, criteria of evaluation of research should be used that condemn sexist and androcentric elements in that research (assumptions, interpretations, methods, concepts, metaphors, etc.). Feminist critics of science have put such evaluative criteria to use, for example. And fourth, and more radically, criteria of evaluation of research should be used that favor, or even demand, egalitarian conceptions--e.g., that require higher standards of evidence for inegalitarian views, or that even rule out inegalitarian views.

How useful are these suggestions? Doubtless many would object that the funding suggestions--linking funding to research of interest and benefit to women and to research supporting egalitarian views--are antithetical to science as an impartial search for truth, all truth. But science does not impartially pursue all truth, nor can it: there is just so much time and money for research, and choices must be made, and are made. Of course, our objectors will continue, such choices should be made on purely "scientific" grounds, purely "epistemic" grounds: the most interesting, the most important research, from a purely scientific perspective, or the research that will have the greatest impact on its field, or the most immediately doable research, should be the research that is funded, else the continued epistemic success of science will be jeopardized. But why? It is far from clear that this is the way decisions are now made in our "epistemically successful" science. Indeed, most current research is paid for by the military; or by the pharmaceutical industry, the oil industry, the chemical industry, or biotechnology firms--or by the government on behalf of these industries, in response to lobbying by them. And not surprisingly, most current research is tailored to the goals of these funders. Thus we have, for example, agricultural research that revolves around pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and other petrochemicals, of little help to smaller, poorer farmers around the world; and medical research that revolves around expensive high-tech treatments and cures rather than the less lucrative preventive knowledge that would help so many more people. In short, "purely epistemic" reasons for funding function a lot less frequently in science than we have been led to expect, and other kinds of reasons--for example, money--function a lot more frequently. And epistemically successful science goes on in spite of it. So funding linked to support for egalitarian views, and the like, need not pose any insurmountable problems. And if, as I have suggested, science should be an ally in the fight for equality for women, then such funding might be a plausible feature of such a science.

Consider, now, the two evaluative suggestions--linking sexist and androcentric elements in research, and inegalitarian conceptions, to negative evaluation, and egalitarian conceptions to positive evaluation. What can be said in support of these suggestions? Certainly, a variety of other evaluative criteria are already recognized by scientists--for example, simplicity, fruitfulness, empirical adequacy, and the like. So why not the criteria proposed as well? Consider what justifies these other evaluative criteria--simplicity, for example. Will it be said that simplicity is pragmatically justified, because it renders whatever has it more easily put to use? But the egalitarian feature of a conception is pragmatically justified as well, because it renders the conception more capable of moving society toward an important social goal. Will it be said that simplicity is epistemically justified, because it renders whatever has it more highly supported by the same amount of evidence? But the egalitarian feature of a conception is epistemically justified as well, because it renders the conception more morally defensible. Will it be said that simplicity is justified as an aesthetic ideal? But egalitarianism is justified as a moral ideal. And why should aesthetics count in science, but not morality?

            I have been dealing with the question of the role of science in the struggle for equality for women. This question cries out for attention, since it concerns the well-being of at least half the population. Indeed, it concerns the well-being of a good deal more of the population than that. For the terrain I have covered has analogues pertaining to race, class, sexual orientation, and other struggles for social justice (e.g., If science can be a powerful ally in the fight for equality for African-Americans, should it be, and in what sorts of ways? etc.). The question I have considered here is ultimately, therefore, a very large one, and I have barely begun to investigate it. But if I have succeeded in motivating at least some interest in it without at the same time stirring up the threatening demons of Lysenko and Soviet science and Nazi science, my goal in this paper will have been richly fulfilled.

This article is a version of a paper given at a Conference on "Value-Free Science: Ideal or Illusion?", Center for Ethics and Values in the Sciences, Birmingham, Alabama, February 2001.

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