Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology

  • Henry Etzkowitz,
  • Carol Kemelgor &
  • Brian Uzzi
Cambridge University Press: 2000. 282 pp. £12.95, $19.95

In spite of its subtitle, Athena Unbound has little 'advancement' to report in the lives of the American women scientists interviewed by the authors. Only the most determined were able to overcome early stereotypes of what girls should be like at home, at school or in society, as well as later prejudices. Girls tend to leave college with higher exam results than boys and with reasonable self-assurance. Then, from university onwards, they are made to feel out of place in labs, pubs and the other meeting places where gossip and information are swapped and where men receive their informal training in career-long networking.

The book contains few in-depth interviews, but the scientists selected have perceptive things to say about their own and other women's failures. Their testimony often contradicts prevailing assumptions and policies. For instance, they say that the impact of role models — older women in top jobs who function as beacons for young students — has been overrated. The poor 'models' have to struggle so hard to stay on top and are so obviously exhausted that only masochists would emulate them. The 'critical mass' theory, according to which a sufficiently large number of women researchers in a field would lead to a change in the power structure, doesn't stand the test either. This naive idea goes against experience: in some areas of the life sciences women are in the majority, but are kept firmly on the lower rungs, where a large and not too skilled labour force is needed. The same thing happened in medicine in European countries, and in road building in the Soviet Union.

The authors, two sociologists and a psychotherapist, want to dispel clichés about the inability of women to survive in a harsh environment. Not that they need to sell this argument — the large numbers of women raising a family as single mothers on a part-time salary are proof enough of their resilience. And although the authors' quantitative analysis method is respectable, job and pay statistics already tell the whole story. The book, though slim, feels over-long, because its unstartling conclusions are hammered home by the American habit of summarizing a chapter's contents at the end of that same chapter, as if readers were memory-impaired.

The Gender and Science Reader

Edited by:
  • Muriel Lederman &
  • Ingrid Bartsch
Routledge: 2001. 505 pp. £55, $90 (hbk), £18.99, $29.95 (pbk)

The Gender and Science Reader covers the same ground from the point of view of the feminist critique of science. It is a collection of essays and book extracts from the best English-language authors, from well-known feminist writers such as Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Hilary Rose and Carolyn Merchant, to newer entrants such as biologists Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold, who discovered the 2.6 factor (they showed that women had to publish 2.6 times more than men in order to obtain the same quality scores for postdoctoral fellowship applications submitted to the Swedish Medical Council; see Nature 386, 341–343; 1997).

The book starts with a survey of (mainly US) data on the low status of women scientists. This is followed by a critique of scientific methods and values and of the underlying ideas about 'nature'. The editors nicely balance the different schools of feminist theory. For example, Sarah Harding's essay “Is science multicultural?” is followed by Helen Longino's “Subject, power, and knowledge”, a review of feminist epistemological strategies. Longino herself favours “the inclusion of cognitive diversity”, whether gendered or cultural, within the scientific community “as a resource for criticism of the received wisdom”, but doesn't believe “that every alternative view is equally deserving of attention”.

Longino is in turn followed by John Lukacs, a “historian of twentieth-century European culture who brings a strongly religious perspective to his discussion of . . . quantum mechanics”. Lukacs treads less cautiously than the other two men who contribute to this anthology. One suspects his essay on “Heisenberg's recognitions”, which discusses the “historicity of reality as something which is prior to its mathematicability” in relation to human nature, has been included to underscore the rationality of feminist authors. Comic relief is provided by chapters on “Gender practice” and “Science and identity”, which tell how past research in the life sciences proceeded apparently unaware that human organisms, unlike bacteria, come in two versions, or blinded by an eagerness to assign inferior quality to female cells, genes or brains.

The book's final section asks the question: will feminist scientists change science? Well, in some areas of science they already have, for instance in animal behaviour studies, Earth sciences and medical research. Hilary Rose, who has been chosen to provide an uplifting epilogue, sees “harbingers of hope”. I agree. An increasing number of men love science enough not to deprive it of the “brilliance of women” (Rose). In the United States, where women complain more loudly than in most other countries, equal-opportunities policies have improved their lot in publicly funded research. But in Europe, according to “Women and Science”, a report published last year by the European Technology Assessment Network, even countries committed by European treaties to fight discrimination in the work-place are reluctant to interfere with scientific bodies. If they don't interfere with teamsters' unions or soccer fans, who cares? But scientists take pride in their objectivity, yet don't notice that their sexist bias makes them look like the Victorians who preached family values to the underclass during the day and patronized brothels at night. No wonder so many women still think, with Virginia Woolf, that science “is a man, a father, and infected too”.