When the University of Wisconsin announced last month it had endowed the country’s first-ever post-doctoral program in feminist biology — “which attempts to uncover and reverse gender bias in biology” — the backlash was swift. “Memo to the University of Wisconsin,” Christina Hoff Sommers sniffed in an American Enterprise Institute video, “we don’t need feminist biology any more than we need femistry or galgebra.” But what if we don’t even know we need it? After all, when a feminist lab redesigned classic studies about campus hookup culture, the outcomes were quite different — and much less bleak for women. The Cut talked to Janet Hyde, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Research on Gender & Women.
How did you convince a major public research university it needed a feminist biology program?
It wasn’t exactly what you’re imagining, based on the question. About two years ago, and really by surprise, we got a large bequest to the Department of Gender Studies from Dr. Gertraude Wittig, who was born in Austria and came to the U.S. and got a Ph.D. in biology in the early 1950s. There were hardly any women getting Ph.D.s in biology or anything in those days. She did manage a career for herself, but there was all sorts of sexism along the way. She had no prior contact with the university, but in framing her will she wanted her estate to do something that would further women in biology and feminist biology. She did research on women’s studies programs, and found ours was the best. We thought, What can we do that will advance the donor’s wishes? We came up with this two-year post-doc fellowship and, because of this magnificent bequest, none of it is money from the state of Wisconsin.
In your own words, what is feminist biology?
You can think of feminist biology as having two components. First, it identifies gender bias in traditional biology and alerting students and scientists to possible gender bias. Scientists want, in general, to be not biased, so in a way this is just improving biology, right? Another part is constructing new theories and new research that does away with these biases and leads to a more balanced biology that takes women into account. One of my favorite examples is we now know that taking baby aspirin prevents heart attacks and strokes. The original clinical trials, which were funded by the National Institute of Health, were done on a male-only sample. A feminist biologist would say there’s gender bias in that design; we can’t assume it’s going to work for women. We want to correct biases like that in biomedical research.
So a lot of it has to do with redoing the work of men?
Anybody can commit errors of gender bias in research. But most of traditional biology has come from the male perspective; so women are going to have new insight based on their experience and are going to notice more things. If we think about primate research, much of it was very gender biased, focusing on the male dictator and his troops. Then Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy gave us a new view of what was going on in these primate troops, because what the females were doing was ignored or stereotyped. When we do research in biology we tend to project our own human gender roles on these species, and that can bias the observations. What we want to do is have less-biased observations.
What will the fellows do?
Half-research, half-teaching. Our first fellow, Caroline Van Sickle, studies fossils in some prehuman species. It turns out that a lot of the research that’s been done on fossils from those species has been done on male fossils, including research on reproduction and childbirth. So her whole mission in life is to get female members of those species. It will be better science because it will be looking at all the fossils. She studies the female pelvis and how it evolves across species.
Has the reception of feminist perspectives in science changed since you entered the field?
In biology, I think that remains to be seen, because we don’t have enough people using that approach; in some ways, it’s like psychology was in the 1970s. We had to work very hard to earn respect. I think our research was good enough and so we became very accepted in psychology. I think something similar will happen in biology, in which the early entrants are going to have to do some spectacular research and that will earn respect for it.
There’s much more attention to gender in research and also race and ethnicity, which has been another limitation. Does everybody do unbiased research? No. Scientists are humans and humans make these errors or have biases. The topics that were raised through psychology of women, such as the need for research on rape and sexual assault and domestic violence, those are flourishing research areas today. We have really pushed the field ahead in terms of topics to be studied in terms of theory. We have multiple revisions of theories that take a more balanced review, just in terms of taking gender into consideration in people’s research methods.
You’re known for a paper that reviewed psychological studies from the past 20 years and found that gender differences in cognitive abilities and communication styles were actually quite small. Men and women are more alike than we are different. Do you think feminist biology will erase some biological gender differences too?
The aim is just to get at a more accurate view of what’s going, so sometimes that’s going to reveal gender differences or gender similarities. The gender similarities hypothesis of mine was just accumulating data, and I couldn’t help but see.
A lot of biological and psychological research makes its way into the media, "Men are from Mars" — a lot of people believe that. So we hope that this feminist biology approach is going to lead to better biological research so that people are better informed. Back in the late 1800s, it was just obvious that women were way less intelligent than men. They discovered that women’s brains are somewhat smaller, so they said aha. They were searching for a supposed biological reason. Well, it turns out that women aren’t less intelligent, and it also turns out that, once you correct for body size, men don’t have larger brains. Generations of people went around thinking that women had smaller brains and were less intelligent and therefore couldn’t have any kind of important careers. That was a disservice to the society and the women. With feminist biology, the public will be better informed, individuals will have more equal opportunities, and so on.