How gender may influence scientific knowledge

Scientist is a gender neutral term. But can a scientist conduct research in a gender-neutral manner? And, more importantly, should they?

In the feminist studies of science, Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding introduced a concept called situated knowledge, according to which knowledge is informed by the position people hold when producing it.1,2 The idea behind this concept is quite simple. Consider investigating why a bridge has collapsed. A mathematician with an expertise in geometry would follow a starkly different approach than a geotechnical engineer or a materials scientist – they may even all offer different explanations of what happened.

More generally, where we are located in space and time, the values and skills we hold, the language and terminology we use to describe a problem, our preconceptions and cultural background, and the way we interact with others all affect the knowledge claims we make. It is only natural that gender too is one of the things that affects how we see and interpret the world. This is not only because we interact with the world through our bodies, but also – perhaps more crucially – because the way we interact with each other is affected by our gender and the ideas we hold of it.

A classic example of how our knowledge of certain areas is affected by gender comes from primatology, which in the 1970s saw radical progress in understanding social behaviour. This was largely due to the involvement of female scientists who, unlike their male colleagues, started to pay closer attention to the behaviour of female primates. By doing so, they noticed that previously held beliefs about how primates interact with each other were largely affected by gender stereotypes.

A new view

Noticing how knowledge claims are influenced by the particular context in which they are developed led to the proposal of various standpoint theories. These purport that there is a specific point of view from which it is epistemically advantageous to look at and examine a problem. Among them is the feminist standpoint theory, which states that examining the world from the perspective of women grants an advantage when understanding problems that in some way implicate gender. Applying this argument to primatology implies that female primatologists as women held an advantageous position when it came to understanding how male and female primates interact and behave in social groups.

In scientific fields where gender is obviously implicated, it is easy to see how illuminating and helpful a feminist standpoint is. But what about chemistry? Are ideas of gender involved in our understanding of – say – chemical reactions, and does that mean that there is value in promoting women and other underrepresented perspectives when conducting research into chemical problems?

Different views and perspectives are vital for achieving a better and deeper understanding of the world

Many people who are dedicated to the study of science from a feminist lens would argue that this is true. Among other things, this is because they take science to be a social enterprise that cannot dispense with gender considerations, however implicit these may be. Given this, different views and perspectives are vital for achieving a better and deeper understanding of the world. This idea is promoted by philosopher of science Helen Longino, who argues that knowledge and progress in science is achieved when people from different perspectives scrutinise and criticise not only each other’s theories and knowledge claims, but also the standards and methods by which those theories and claims are developed. She argues for the democratisation of science and for different social groups to be allowed to equally develop their work and interact with each other.3 

A purported disadvantage of such views of science is that it renders our claims about the world a matter of opinion. Ideas about how molecules and atoms are represented become context-relative and thus subjective interpretations of the world. This is admittedly a dangerous road because it opens the door to conspiracy theories and views that wish to undermine the trust we hold towards science.

But one need not undermine the idea that scientific claims are ultimately judged on the basis of empirical evidence in order to support the value of promoting female (and other) perspectives in the production of scientific knowledge. How ideas occur to scientists is often influenced by things that have more to do with themselves than with the field which they study. For example, Newton apparently came up with the theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head! Regardless of whether this is a true story, it shows that someone’s particular circumstances play a crucial role in how they develop and try ideas. In philosophy this is called the context of discovery and while it only tells us one part of how science is done, it helps us appreciate that who we are plays an important role in how we see and investigate the world.