Has Feminism Changed Science?

Jeria L. Quesenberry (School of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, USA)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Quesenberry, J.L. (2004), "Has Feminism Changed Science?", Information Technology & People, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 346-348. https://doi.org/10.1108/09593840410554238



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Although the information technology (IT) field is considered a relatively new discipline, supposedly free of gender baggage from the sciences, it is nevertheless viewed as a male domain populated with stereotypical computer needs and hackers. Consequently, these and other deterrents have contributed to an under representation of women in the IT workforce, a phenomenon typically termed as the IT gender gap. In an attempt to understand and address this under representation, it is imperative to investigate all the obstacles to female participation in the IT workforce and engage in additional problematizing of the recruitment and retention factors of women in the field.

In Has Feminism Changed Science? Schiebinger (1999) traces the history of women in science, analyzes culture and gender styles in science, and examines the role of gender in forming scientific knowledge. As a history of science professor, Schiebinger's (1989, 1993) research specialization is gender in science and she has established her expertise with two previous books in the area entitled Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science and The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Although, Has Feminism Changed Science? focuses on traditional scientific discourses (physical science, life science and mathematics) it is also extremely beneficial for those studying gender in information sciences and technology. More specifically, Schiebinger presents three themes that are relevant and can be applied to IT gender gap research:

  1. 1.

    the role of feminism in science;

  2. 2.

    gender in the culture of science; and

  3. 3.

    recommendations for activating gender analysis.

Schiebinger answers the question posed in the title of her book Has Feminism Changed Science? with an overwhelming response of yes. In doing so, she argues that feminism has brought changes to science by increasing the number of women in the field and altering scientific knowledge. Schiebinger eloquently explains that feminism contributes to scientific knowledge by asking new questions, particularly those that confront the foundational assumptions of a discipline. Throughout her analysis Schiebinger uses the medicine and primatology fields as examples where feminism has transformed the discipline. For instance, archaeologists now include digging sticks, baskets for gathering food and slings for carrying babies as “first tools” rather than just hunting and defense devices. Also, biologists have a better understanding of the human reproduction system, rather than the traditional view of a passive egg and aggressive sperm. Finally, federal law now requires medical researchers to test their products on a proper mix of men and women (p. 181). Schiebinger clarifies that the goal is not to create a feminist science or a separate science constructed for women. Rather, she explains that “science is a human endeavor; it must serve us all, including women and feminists” (p. 184).

Thus, the question begs, what aspects of medicine and primatology can be used as a model for IT? First and foremost, feminism must be central to the continual development of the IT field. In doing so, a feminist perspective can contribute to the identification of research problems and the methodology used for investigation. From Schiebinger's analysis, it can be concluded that this will contribute to additional scientific knowledge to the research area from alternative perspectives and sources. Although, feminism is still searching for a voice in IT, several researchers such as Adams et al. (2001) and Tapia et al. (2004) are working to bring the perspective to the forefront of IT research.

A second theme of Has Feminism Changed Science? is the concern of gender in the style of science. Schiebinger clearly disputes the claim that the solution to the gender gap lies simply in adding more women to science, leaving the latter unchanged. In this sense, women should assimilate to science rather than modifying the field itself. The assumption is that nothing in either the culture or the content of the sciences requires change to accommodate women (p. 4). Unfortunately, much of the IT gender gap research concludes that the solution to the issue is to get more women in the pipeline. Schiebinger identifies the challenges and potential issues of such a conclusion. Particular relevant to IT, Schiebinger stresses that the pipeline model assumes that women should assimilate to the current practices of science, but does not provide insight on how to change the field so that women can comfortably join (p. 64).

Has Feminism Changed Science? also analyzes masculine and feminine roles as they relate to gender in the cultures of science. The history of gender roles has evolved into an industrial society where the division of labor between work and home remains a barrier for women who enter as science professionals (p. 31). Overall, professional women work roughly 15 h longer at home each week than their husbands (p. 93). Thus, the “playing field” of science can never be leveled, so long as child‐care and domestic duties are seen primarily as women's work (p. 100). These findings are also echoed in IT research on work‐life balance (Perlow, 1998; Trauth et al. 2003). Yet, Schiebinger remains optimistic adding that as women enter the workforce and men take an increasing role in the home, the relationship between professional and private lives will be rethought and restructured (p. 194).

With regard to gender in the culture of science it is important to note that Schiebinger stresses postmodernist thoughts of Haraway and Butler with the argument that there is no “universal woman.” Women do not constitute a tightly knit group with common interests, backgrounds, values, behaviors and mannerisms, but rather have come from a range of classes, races, sexual orientations, geographic locations, and generations. As a result, women have a diversity of history, needs and aspirations (p. 5). Therefore, more cross‐cultural comparisons are needed that examine a range of diverse factors such as social, economic, institutional, cultural, and political aspects and their role in encouraging or discouraging women from participating in science (p. 44). A stronger understanding of feminist standpoints and IT at an individual level of analysis will also lead to more successful strategies in addressing the IT gender gap.

Schiebinger offers three recommendations to activate gender analysis in science. The first recommendation is to implement “site visits” to improve the climate for women in science. Site visits are activities in academia or industry in which women mentor one another in a formal and informal setting. Site visits are also set‐up to actively recruit women, invite women to speak at colloquia and so forth while serving as a robust analysis of gender dynamics in the field. Second, Schiebinger suggests integrating a critical understanding of gender into science by requiring science students to take courses in the history of gender in science. Finally, Schiebinger recommends that gender analysis should also become a part of the standard science courses (p. 186).

The nature of IT is diverse due to its integration of concepts from a wide variety of disciplines. Yet, the actual demographic makeup of the IT workforce does not reflect a diversity of people. Has Feminism Changed Science? makes an important contribution to the understanding of the IT gender gap. In particular, Schiebinger's analysis highlights that the IT gender gap is not a phenomenon significant to IT alone; rather, it is a small piece of a larger problem in the sciences. Instead of conducting research in silo‐like isolation, academic disciplines should work to understand and employ other related areas of study into their analyzes. If we utilize and incorporate Schiebinger's work into information sciences and technology research we can illuminate the issues of the IT gender gap, rather than reinventing the wheel in an attempt to address the problem.


Adam, A., Howcroft, D. and Richardson, H. (2001), “Absent friends? The gender dimension in IS research”, in Russo, N., Fitzgerald, B. and DeGross, J. (Eds), Realigning Research and Practice in Information Systems Development: The Social and Organizational Perspective, Kluwer, Boston, MA, pp. 33352.

Perlow, L.A. (1998), “Boundary control: the social ordering of work and family time in a high‐tech corporation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 43 No. 2, pp. 32857.

Schiebinger, L. (1989), The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Schiebinger, L. (1993), Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

Schiebinger, L. (1999), Has Feminism Changed Science?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Tapia, A., Kvasny, L. and Trauth, E. (2004), “Is there a retention gap for women and minorities? The case for moving in vs moving up”, in Shayo, C. and Igbaria, M. (Eds), Strategies for Managing IS/IT Personnel, Idea Group Publishing, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey, PA, pp. 14364.

Trauth, E.M., Nielsen, S.H. and von Hellens, L.A. (2003), “Explaining the IT gender gap: Australian stories for the new millennium”, Journal of Research and Practice in IT, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 720.

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