Sexism and Scientific Research

By Spanier, Bonnie B. | National Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Sexism and Scientific Research

Spanier, Bonnie B., National Forum

Sexism in scientific research, like any other form of undesirable bias, can enter and affect scientific research and thinking in many ways. Young male and female Bighorn sheep, despite looking and acting alike, are nonetheless described as engaging in different male-typical and female-typical behaviors. Single-celled bacteria are labeled "male" if they have an extra piece of DNA that allows donation of their DNA through a projection that becomes a bridge to the "female," cast as passive recipient; yet the male and female designations are not consistent with biologists' definitions of male and female organisms based on the type of reproductive cells produced. By superimposing strereotypical gender attributes onto animals and even plants and bacteria, scientists (sociobiologists in particular) then use evolutionary arguments to support sexist interpretations of human behavior, keeping men and women in different roles and statuses in society, supposedly based on our genes.

Other examples of sexism in scientific research are found in biomedical research and even in molecular biology. (My expertise is in biology and medicine; the other sciences and mathematics are also affected, often in less obvious ways - a topic for another essay.) Heart disease was studied for decades mainly in older white males, despite the fact that heart disease is the number one killer of older women, who die at rates higher than those of comparable men with heart disease. Gender-associated bias in the field of molecular biology is more subtle but equally profound and damaging. Molecular biology has come to be defined primarily as molecular genetics, equating life with the gene by singling out but one of many important, interacting components to be placed at the top of a hierarchy of control: DNA is crowned the controlling molecule of life (see my book, Impartial Science: Gender Ideology in Molecular Biology, for arguments and evidence).

Given these and a long record of other examples, I contend that sexism in scientific research is hazardous to our health, detrimental to the democratic goal of equity of opportunity among all citizens, and an embarrassment to the ideals of science.


Conscious or unconscious biases can affect judgments about the conclusions we draw from studies, the interpretation of data, the choice of data we deem sound rather than spurious, the language we choose to describe what we see or what models we develop to explain our observations, what methods we choose to study a problem, what populations (whether cells, or rats, or humans) we choose to include or exclude, or what questions we decide are important to ask. Even more, the questions we choose to ask in scientific studies - and the way that we ask those questions - determine what is a legitimate answer to the problem under investigation. The vulnerability of scientific judgments to such biases affects what we think is "natural" and therefore good for humans and how we set our priorities for scientific research and training, investing years of work and millions of tax and corporate dollars.

A question we keep hearing repeated - and answered each time with a new explanation that is then debunked - is, in what ways are men and women biologically different, and how does that relate to behavioral difference? By casting the question in terms of a search for biological and behavioral differences between two groups - rather than, for example, a quest for understanding the range of variation and similarities across populations and cultures - we have set the terms of investigation and analysis. Null findings (no statistically significant difference) are not of interest and so tend to go unreported and unpublished. Biological differences are correlated with behavioral differences, despite the fallacy of equating correlation with cause. The findings that humans exhibit greater variation in biology and behavior between individuals within groups such as "women," "men," "blacks," "whites," "hetero-sexuals," and "homosexuals" than the average differences between groups are ignored to emphasize group differences, whether sex differences, racial-heritage differences, or others. …

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