Women – science – education: continuation

Last week I came across a chronicle by Sindra Peterson Årsköld, Associate Professor in biochemistry at Lund University, entitled chemist and feminist? Yes sure! But beware of gender coaches. Here is the link to her chronicle (written in Swedish):

After reading her chronicle, which I really liked, I tried to sum it up, check up the people she referred to, especially in gender sciences, wrote a few sentences, deleted them again, rewrote and deleted … and never really managed to formulate anything. But now I decided that I will not close my Mac until this blog is done and out in Cyber space.

First of all I checked up a statement by Moira von Wright cited by Sindra. Moira von Wright who is professor in pedagogics at Södertörns Högskola wrote a few years ago, that physics textbooks for high-school students need to contain gender conscious and gender sensitive physics, which would mean a new angle on physics and removal of some of the traditional scientific knowledge. This sounded quite unbelievable to me, and I remember to have heard similar statements about geology a few years ago when I was asked to include a gender perspective in my geology teaching and my research (!). I never did because I could by no means figure out how or why I should change a science subject and scientific explanations to include a gender perspective. Mountain building, erosion, tectonics and landslides have no gender. However it does come to gender when we start looking at the effect of landslides or climate change, to name just a few examples (more about this in a new blog). But back to Moira von Wright. I checked her homepage and the web for her statement, which received numerous comments. She herself was obviously misunderstood and misinterpreted and she writes that she takes back what she had said about physics. That was good news! Physics needs to remain physics, chemistry needs to remain chemistry, and geology needs to remain geology. Science and scientific knowledge is one thing, and I can by no means see how a gender perspective on my research would change the way I analyse my samples or interpret my results. However, I can understand that transmitting science knowledge to a wider public can need some gender angles, so that not only boys/men or only girls/women find science fascinating and understandable. I guess that those who claim that we need to include gender science in our natural science disciplines would probably need to increase their knowledge on how science works and how it is done.

But back to Sindra’s chronicle. Most of all I liked the last paragraph, which refers to how gender equality could be accomplished in chemistry (my free translation of Sindra’s Swedish text): “What is needed for women as for everyone else in science is enough quality time without being interrupted, enough resources, a rich network, a mentor, possibilities to obtain/gather scientific merits, and a stimulating research environment. Although everyone has this wish list, it is unfortunately still much more difficult for women to have all of this. Therefore it is important to pay attention to women around you, especially those who are at the beginning of their science career. Provide support without making them feel inferior. Give them a chance to excel – and they will succeed”.
I completely agree with Sindra – it is the working environment, the support, and the mentorship that count. And this goes for all natural science disciplines.
Maybe we need some education in gender science to being able to act as normal human beings, or maybe we just need some eye-opening comments that make us aware of the fact that we should think twice? I would prefer to make people think twice, and to skip any kind of gender certified geology, just as Sindra would like to skip gender-certified chemistry.

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4 Responses to Women – science – education: continuation

  1. Sindra Peterson Årsköld says:

    Hi Barbara!
    First of all: Thank you for quoting me and for following up on what I wrote!
    About Moira von Wright: It’s true that the text in question is over 10 years old, and for that reason I did try to find out whether she’d taken any of it back before I quoted her. She wrote on Newsmill last year (http://www.newsmill.se/artikel/2010/02/09/jag-r-inte-alls-vetenskapsfientlig) that she does not have a relativistic approach to science and that she has the utmost respect for physics as a subject. This was good to hear!
    However, she does not retract any of the things she wrote is the report. She writes that both pedagogy and gender studies have advanced since then, but doesn’t specify how this has changed her conclusions. Further she claims to have been quoted out of context, and she claims that it is clear from her report that she is against a relativistic view of knowledge. I’ve read the report from start to finish (link below). There is nothing in the context that palliates the quotes, and it is very ambiguous as to how she views scientific knowledge.
    So as far as I can tell, the Newsmill article is a political text designed to bring the reader away from the subject matter.

    At last, thank you for highlighting what I felt was most important, Barabara! The editor-in-chief Boel Jönsson did too, when she quoted me on the cover.

    Best wishes,

    Please judge for yourself, it’s called “Genus och text” (sorry about the link): http://www.skolverket.se/sb/d/193/url/0068007400740070003a002f002f0077007700770034002e0073006b006f006c007600650072006b00650074002e00730065003a0038003000380030002f00770074007000750062002f00770073002f0073006b006f006c0062006f006b002f0077007000750062006500780074002f0074007200790063006b00730061006b002f0042006c006f0062002f007000640066003500390030002e007000640066003f006b003d003500390030/target/pdf590.pdf%3Fk%3D590

    • Hallo Sindra,
      have been reading through Moira von Wright’s text and think that e.g. chapter ‘Kriterier för en jämställd text’ especially ‘frågor till texten’ is really good and takes up many of the thoughts I have had regarding how to convey natural science to kids or a lay public. However my natural science biased brain is not at all able to follow all the theoretical first chapters – too much of a language that I don’t speak. And when she comes to ‘den rätta kunskapen’, and cites text from different school books, then I really don’t get what she wants to get at, I just don’t see the problem behind the text (maybe because I am brainwashed). I get a feeling that she approaches our science with her viewpoints and her language without really understanding how we work and what natural science is. The same would probably happen if we would start to criticize history, pedagogy, or any other human science topic.
      I am sure that school books need to be changed and that many other types of examples and approaches can be included so that girls can feel more familiar with the text, the questions and the approach (most text books were written by men). I also think that women are largely underrepresented when it comes to the history of natural science, and that much would be needed to bring all those women who disappeared back front. There are a quite a few and I am gradually discovering them. Therefore I think it is important that MvW mentions the missing women in science, i.e. not only men have formed science but also women.
      I can agree to many parts of what MvW has written, and think that she has some really good points, while I don’t agree with several other statements. The first sentence in the last paragraph, which got most attention is unfortunate, and I think it can only be understand if one reads through the whole report. Probably many people have not read the whole report.
      This was a long reply!

  2. Sindra Peterson Årsköld says:

    Hi Barbara,
    I also agree with some of the things in the report, sure. But I think it’s most unfortunate that good points (by MvW and by other gender scientists) are mixed up with anti-scientific statements. The back-lash I fear is already here. Men feeling unjustly accused (by the man-hating rhetoric of Rosenberg and others) and seeing obvious nonsense (such as changing physics to a spiritual contemplation of the rainbow) are not likely to pick up the subtleties of the problems women in academia face today. On the contrary, they are pushed into the opposite stance: that there is no problem at all and women are just trying to take power because they can. If you want an example of back-lash, have a look at the reponse I got in the comments field of Pär Ström’s blog: http://genusnytt.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/utskalld-i-trekvart-av-tiina-rosenberg/
    These people actually agree with most of what I write, but because I dare call myself a feminist, and their view of feminism has been shaped by the small clique of militants and social constructivists dominating the debate, they see red.
    I realize the blogosphere is full of this kind of bs – but the comments do come from real people, daring to speak their minds under pseudonym.
    I maintain that the gender sciences are doing more harm than good.
    Best wishes,

    • Dear Sindra,
      I completely agree with you, that the extreme rhetoric does not help at all, because it does not appeal to most women and men, and it does not help either. On the contrary, when gender issues are discussed, many men feel jumped upon and become defensive, which makes it more difficult to initiate a good discussion.
      I had a look at the comments in Pär Ström’s link, and although these might mirror the thoughts of some, they are certainly not representative, because most people do not write blogs. I think that people, who need to hide behind pseudonyms, when they write a lot of bs in their blogs, obviously have some problems.
      Gender science does not only encompass women, but also men, and much of the research that is done within this discipline is very interesting and important. Check for example what researchers are doing at Lund University. But we do not hear much about it, because the research is overshadowed by a few persons who are portrayed in the media. This is very similar to the climate change debate, where the media during many years gave more space to the few, and often not so competent, anti-climate change proponents.
      Best wishes

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