Phallocentric Fallacies: On Gender Bias in Science

In the media and in the science classroom, it is common to hear the lamenting of the lack of women in science at the highest level. This is made evident in the statistics, such as the 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK being women as of 2014. The world over and in the majority of scientific disciplines, women are conspicuously absence at the highest level. Most agree that this is not due to women’s inherent inability to do science or their lack of ambition to do anything but raise their children. Therefore the gender disparity at the leading edge of scientific research and innovation is often bemoaned as a shameless waste of talent. In such an example, Athene Donald explores the phenomenon of girls interested in physical sciences being subtly or unsubtly discouraged from taking A-Level Physics and being “lost” from the path to a career in physics or engineering. Donald argues that such a phenomenon is harmful to the economy, as to simply maintain the status quo in terms of science industries in the UK, we need 10,000 more STEM graduates than we had graduating as of 2012, according to the Royal Academy of Engineers.

I don’t deny that women aren’t needed to make up the numbers of competent STEM professionals if we hope to expand STEM industries. Furthermore, I agree with Donald that it reflect poorly on an intellectual culture if those who are academically able and motivated to pursue a field of interest are discouraged from doing so for reasons unrelated to their ability.

However, these arguments apply to encouraging anyone who has the merely inkling of interest in science to pursue it in the educational systems, so are not in principle incompatible with having the upper echelons of scientific institutions filled with men of a particularly narrow social slice if this is how the dice have fallen in terms of interest.

But I will argue that women, as well as everyone else who isn’t of the demographic which has been historically the definition of a scientist; the middle-class white European man, have more to offer science than just another pair of hands.Though science aims to be objective it is inescapably subjective as it is done by human beings with subjective experiences. We gain our subjective biases through how we experience our lives in our society, these background biases act as “blinkers” and inevitably limit our outlook on the ever elusive truth of reality. This narrowing is not out of stubbornness to see reason, as the perjorative use of “blinkers” entails, but means it is very difficult to see otherwise. As Elizabeth Anderson writes in Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a Defence: There is no reason to think our presently cramped and stunted imaginations set the actual limits of the world, but they do set the limits of what we now take to be possible.”

Those who have very similar experiences due to their similar social backgrounds are likely to have similar “blinkers” and similarly narrow outlooks, which becomes the status quo. As Anderson writes: “A scientific community composed of inquirers who share the same background assumptions is unlikely to be aware of the roles these assumptions play in licensing inferences from observations to hypotheses, and even less likely to examine these assumptions critically.” In contrast, those who have different experience and interests through being socialised differently will have their own slightly different set of blinkers and fields of vision of reality slightly askew from the status quo.

Science done by those with very similar life experiences, such as coming from the same social class, same country, same educational background, same sex-class and so on can be very fruitful, I do not deny the achievements of the Enlightenment, but this can only go so far. The introduction of someone with different backgrounds, such as that of being a woman in a patriarchal society, into a field previously dominated by androcentricism, the centring of the male means that she brings with her a different set of subjective biases about the field, so her blinkers are slightly offset to those of her male colleagues and she may have an outlook subtly different, and may encompass a patch of reality the men have so far missed. By contrasting ideas developed by those with divergent outlooks, scientists in the field should then conduct experiments to work out which idea matches reality most closely, and therefore help edge science ever closer to the truth.With such similar subjective biases, a field can only go so far until old hypotheses become rehashed again and again until the empirical evidence relevant to them is exhausted. But using her subtly different outlook onto the world, the female scientist may be able to come up with an innovative hypothesis which after sufficient empirical corroboration may be a theory which comes closer to reality than male scientists with their own particular outlooks have until then been able to.

My focus here will be on the use of what Anderson describes as gender symbolism, “which occurs when we represent nonhuman or inanimate phenomena as masculine” or feminine” and model them after gender ideals or stereotypes.” I will use a historical example of this where gender ideals are mapped onto a biological phenomenon where in fact no sound evidence of it’s existence is found, a true phallocentric fallacy where the masculine is seen where it does not exist. The episode which sparked this articles comes from a particularly obscure branch (or hypha) of biology: fungal reproduction.

As Nicolas P. Money writes in Mushroom, 19th century mycologists were very interested in the topic of fungal sexual reproduction, though the difficulties of studying the phenomena meant that, whist most specialists seemed to favour “the gentle fusion of colonies”, no experimental data nor a mechanism for this was proposed. However, during the First World War, Worthington G. Smith (1835-1917) proposed that he had observed through his microscope mushrooms producing sperm cells, which were ‘ejaculated’ onto the spores in the soil. Smith’s observations are flawed on two fronts. Firstly, he seems to have struggled to see these sperm cells, writing that “At first it requires long and patient  observation to make out the form of these bodies satisfactorily, but when the peculiar shape is once comprehended, there is little difficulty in correctly seeing their characteristic form.” It sounds rather like to see these cells, you must know what to look for, so you see what you know. But his most egregious mistake was to hydrate his samples with the shocking non-sterile “expressed juice of horse dung”, no doubt containing sperm-like amoeba. However, it is highly likely that due to his experience as a man in the patriarchal Victorian society Smith could only imagine sexual reproduction to occur by the forceful ejaculation of the active male sex cells onto the passive female sex cells, a clear projection of the gender symbolism of Victorian society onto the natural world. His blickers contributed to the poor quality of his science, as he did not or refused to acknowledge the contaminating effect of the horse dung on his samples so certain his results were correct.

In contrast, the young graduate Elsie Maud Wakefield (1886- 1972) appears to me to be the model of the “New Woman”, a graduate of the then all-women’s Somerville College, Oxford. Though information on her biography is sparse, as a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century she would likely have been aware of ideas about human sexual relations being more mutualistic and equal than the Victorian ideals of male dominant courtship, such as those later expressed in the work of Marie Stopes. Whether she adhered to these political values or not, she would have been better able to imagine a non-phallocentric natural world which Smith could not. Therefore, her subjective ‘blinkers’ were different enough from those of Smith’s that she was able to conduct her experiments on fungal reproduction without the phallocentric assumptions of the active male sperm and passive female spores.

Wakefield conducted a series of experiments which demonstrated the necessity of the fusion of the mycelium, the fungal ‘roots’, to produce mushrooms in the Basidiomycete fungi, with no role for mobile sperm cells. But as Wakefield discovered, the nuclei of the two colonies don’t immediately fuse when the colonies fuse, instead the fused colony grows and forms mushrooms with the two, unfused nuclei inhabiting every cell. Nuclear fusion, the event which occurs in animals when sperm meets the egg, only occurs in the mushroom just before spores are produced. Neither colony engaged in sex takes on an ‘active masculine’ or ‘passive feminine’ role which the Victorian Smith expected to find in society and in nature, and so the phallocentric system of gender symbolism breaks down.

I do not claim that women are able to tap a magical reserve of female knowledge gained purely by virtue of having a female body. This sort of crude gender essentialism only aids in cementing differences. Instead, I argue that simply because no two people can ever occupy the same position in time and space, each person’s subjective experience of reality will be slightly different from that of others, and so will have different background assumptions and interests when entering science, including biases based on being socialised as a woman or a man. Instead a shuffling of subjective, gender biased perspectives is where real scientific innovation and the hope of objectivity can be found. As Anderson writes, “Each individual might be subject to perhaps ineradicable cognitive biases or partiality due to gender or other influences. But if the social relations of inquirers are well arranged, then each person’s biases can check and correct the others’.In this way, theoretical rationality and objectivity can be expressed by the whole community of inquirers even when no individual’s thought processes are perfectly impartial, objective, or sound.”