Women in Science: The Clash of Cultures

Londa Schiebinger
September 01, 1995

We thought all you had to do was get more women into the pool—into graduate schools and tenure-track positions—and automatically they would move into the faculty and into industry, and so on. We were naive.—Neurobiologist Neena Schwartz, 1992

The question of women in science is a question of equality—that all people should have equal opportunity to pursue careers of their choosing. It is also a question of knowledge. Only recently have we begun to appreciate that who does science effects the kind of science that gets done. A simple example of how science is gendered can be found in textbook accounts of conception, where the active sperm and passive egg remained stock characters well into the 1980s. In these spermatic sagas, the sperm hero, like Mark Antony or Odysseus, actively pursues the egg, surviving the hostile environment of the vagina and defeating his many rivals. The large and placid egg, by contrast, drifts luxuriously along the fallopian tube until captured by the valiant sperm.1

In 1983, Gerald and Helen Schatten wrote "The Energetic Egg" for The Sciences in an effort to revise these fundamental notions of fertilization. Their egg is portrayed, like the sperm, as an active agent, directing the growth of microvilli (small finger-like projections on its surface) to capture and tether the sperm. The egg and sperm are portrayed as "partners"—perhaps a dual-career couple—working together toward successful fertilization. This account has been hailed as an example of prejudice vanquished. We can, however, also see it as a narrative of masculinization. Not only is the egg energized, it is ascribed the valued "active" characteristics of the sperm. (The sperm does not become passive.) Like women themselves, female biology is all too often expected to assimilate the values of the dominant culture.

Women have historically been excluded from science. Even Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel prizes, was not admitted to the Academie des Sciences in Paris in the early part of this century. Today, the same institutions that for centuries have kept women at arms length are now courting them. Yet despite intervention programs and good intentions, the number of women is not increasing at the projected rate. According to the National Science Foundation's 1992 update on Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, women in these fields continue to face higher unemployment, lower pay, and fewer opportunities for promotion than their male peers.

Why this failure? One problem is that intervention programs have focused too narrowly on keeping girls and women in the math and science "pipeline." It may not be women alone that need reform, but also science. In 1959, C. P. Snow identified two cultures, scientific and literary, between which loomed a gulf of "mutual incomprehension, . . . hostility and dislike, and most of all lack of understanding." A similar chasm separates the cultures of science as we know it and of women, no matter what their ethnicities or backgrounds. At the core of modern science lies a self-reinforcing system whereby the findings of science, crafted in institutions from which women were excluded, have been used to justify their continued exclusion.

No amount of fine tuning can "fit" women comfortably into institutions structured to exclude them. Let me mention but two areas of conflict. First is the impasse between professional culture and domestic life. The worst thing a professional woman can do is marry and have children. For men, by contrast, marriage has brought distinct advantages; married men with families on average earn more, live longer, and progress faster in their careers than do single men.2 The conflict women encounter between family and career is not just a private matter. Since the 18th century, what North Americans have called individuals have been male-heads of households. Professional culture has been structured to assume that the professional has a stay-at-home wife and access to vast resources of unpaid labor. Our meager initiatives to hire dual-career couples and our feeble parental leave policies all leave the basic structures favoring traditional arrangements in place.

For historical reasons, women in our culture practice hypergamy, the tendency to marry men of higher (or at least not lower) status than their own. As a result, more women than men professionals are married to other professionals. A stay-at-home husband is a rare luxury. While only 6.5 percent of the members of the American Physical Society are women, 44 percent of them are married to other physicists. An additional 25 percent are married to some other type of scientist, according to a 1 April 1991 report in The Scientist. A remarkable 80 percent of women mathematicians and 33 percent of women chemists also married within their disciplines. Women, as members of dual-career couples, suffer from decreased job mobility. They also shoulder more than their share of domestic labor.3 Within dual-earner families, women continue to do 80 percent of the domestic labor. It is not true that male Harvard Ph.D.s are genetically incapable of doing laundry, they just need mentoring in how to care for fine linens and silks.

While it is no longer required (as it was at the turn of the century in New England's women's colleges) that professional women remain single and childless, women are not as free to choose to have families as their male colleagues. The 13 March 1992 Science reported that 38 percent of women chemists, for example, are single compared to 18 percent of the men; 37 percent of women chemists over the age of 50 are childless compared with only 9 percent of the men. Women go to great lengths to "fit in" to institutions structured around the assumption that scientists do not bear children. Biologist Deborah Spector displayed perhaps the ultimate dedication to her profession, having labor induced on a 3-day weekend so she could attend a student's thesis defense the following Monday. A neurobiologist at Tuebingen's Developmental Biology Institute reports further that roughly a dozen young women of her acquaintance have had abortions because they thought that having a baby would end their careers.

The second area of conflict is in professional demeanor. It is a sad fact of American life that women tend to underestimate their abilities and probability of success. A study tracking a group of high school Valedictorians (46 women and 34 men) found that by the end of their senior year of college not one of the women rated herself as having intelligence "far above average," while one quarter of the men did—this despite the fact that the women's grade point averages were higher overall than the men's.

Woe to the woman perceived to be professionally immodest. A study of faculty meetings showed that men spoke on average 11 to 17 seconds per utterance, while women spoke for 3 to 10 seconds. When women do speak, it is with marked politeness. In order not to appear immodestly intelligent, forward, or pushy, women tend to preface their remarks with apologies and disclaimers. A woman can be judged arrogant simply because she does not engage in what is considered appropriate womanly behavior—continually smiling, qualifying her statements, and cocking her head in a pleasing and deferential fashion.4 In short, women and men are judged quite differently even when engaging in similar career strategies and professional behaviors. A woman is damned if she displays the qualities of a leader in a culture that values assertiveness and leadership, and damned if she does not.

The fact that men and women inhabit separate cultures can hold devastating consequences for women. As a woman passes into professional culture, she enters a foreign culture where she must learn the language, customs, and accepted modes of behavior. No matter how fluent she becomes, she will never speak with the proficiency of a native. Moreover, when moving into the professional world, she is often still responsible for the traditional duties of wife and mother at home—all of which saps vital energy from creative work.5

The conflict between women and science is written into the structure of higher education and research laboratories, the structure of our working and private lives, onto our hearts and our minds. The exclusion of women from science ensued from hard- fought battles in the 17th and 18th centuries. Effective and enduring inclusion of women in science will require hard-fought battles in the 21st century. As the former editor of Science magazine put it, "it may cost some money, some effort, and some understanding, but the voyage to full equality can be even more exciting and worthwhile than the voyage into space."


  • Biology and Gender Study Group, "The Importance of Feminist Critique for Contemporary Cell Biology," Feminism and Science, ed. Nancy Tuana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 172-87. See also Emily Martin, "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles," Signs, Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (1991): 485-501.
  • Betty Vetter, What Is Holding Up the Glass Ceiling? Barriers to Women in the Science and Engineering Workforce, Occasional Paper 92-3 (Washington, D.C.: Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, 1992), p. 13.
  • Ellen Galinsky, National Study of the Changing Workforce (New York: Families and Work Institute, 1993). See also Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, National Research Council, Women Scientists and Engineers Employed in Industry: Why So Few? (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994), pp. 40-43.
  • Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), pp. 188-215.
  • Yolanda Moses, Black Women in Academe: Issues and Strategies (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges, 1989).

Londa Schiebinger, Ph.D., is professor of history and women's studies and director of the Institute for Women in the Sciences and Engineering at Penn State, 510 Classroom Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3342. Author of The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Harvard University Press, 1989) and Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science(Beacon Press, 1993), she is currently writing a book on women in contemporary scientific culture, with support from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Last Updated September 01, 1995