Written by Rachel Hanebutt, Michelle Frank, Jessica Cussins, Kellie Owens
Advised by Amy Gilson
Michelle Hello Everyone, and welcome to SIT’N Listen. SIT’N Listen is a production of Science in the News, a graduate student organization at Harvard dedicated to opening lines of communications between scientists…and, well, the rest of the world’s experts and enthusiasts. This series is a collaboration between Science in the News and the program in Science, Technology and Society at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Today’s edition is part of a recurring series of episodes on science and society, where we bring scholars across various disciplines- science, public policy, design, history, you name it- to engage in discussions on a wide range of relevant topics. In this episode we will talk about the incredibly interesting and increasingly important topic that affects each and every one of you – gender.
My name is Michelle Frank, and I’m a PhD candidate in neuroscience here at Harvard. My research is focused on reproductive behaviors in the fruit fly. Mating behaviors are sexually dimorphic–by definition different sexes play different roles in reproduction–and in the fly, the parts of the brain that control mating behaviors vary between sexes, as well. Given the nature of my research, I’m extremely interested in the ways in which research about sex differences is or can be affected by our cultural understanding of sex and gender, and in turn, how research about sex differences is or can be interpreted in broader society to influence our understandings of sex and gender.
Kellie My name is Kellie Owens, and I’m a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University, and a Visiting Research Fellow with the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School. My research explores the social dimensions of science, medicine, and gender, with a particular emphasis on decision-making in childbirth. I’ve always been interested in how health policy affects how sex and gender operate in medicine, which I’m excited to talk more about today.
Jessica Hi! I’m Jessica Cussins and I am a Master’s Candidate in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, a Research Assistant with the Program on Science, Technology, and Society, and the Chair of The Future Society, which aims to improve understanding about the most consequential emerging technologies. My research in particular has been on the social, ethical, and political implications of human genetic and reproductive technologies. The intersection of gender in these spaces is complicated and important, and I’m looking forward to touching on some of the current issues in this podcast.
Rachel My name is Rachel Hanebutt, and I am a Master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I study the brain and how we can use cognitive science to better inform the education system, on the topic of sex education, in particular. I also study interpersonal relations with a focus on – you guessed it – gender. My work with sexual assault and domestic violence awareness and prevention, as well as my work in helping youth to develop ethical romantic and sexual relationships with one another is the driving force behind my passion for gender studies and might explain some of the perspectives I’ll be bringing to this episode.
Jessica Okay, so today we’re talking about gender- maybe we can start off with a softball: Let’s look at the fact that from Little League to the Olympics, the majority of sports are segregated by gender and follow very different trajectories. We have become so accustomed to seeing teams split up in this way that it often appears to represent natural or inherent differences between the genders. But in reality, these boundaries are not clear-cut, and a lot of work is required to police them. Different groups contest where the boundary should lie and whether there should be one at all. Of course, they do lead to real differences in people’s outcomes.
Rachel Yes! In my favorite women’s basketball team – the Indiana Fever – the star Tamika Catchings earns the league maximum of $105,000 a season, but this is more than $300,000 less than the N.B.A.’s league minimum.
Jessica That’s crazy! Policing the borders between men and women’s competitions has particularly high stakes in the Olympics. There are a number of well-known cases of someone who is competing as a woman suddenly facing investigation into whether they are quote unquote really a woman. The history of methods used since the International Olympic Committee started what they call gender verification in 1968 have evolved from the humiliating and crude practice of asking someone to drop their underwear, but even the methods used now are highly controversial.
Indian runner Dutee Chand was described as being a “sure shot Olympic medalist” at the age of eighteen, but after winning a race in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in 2013, the Athletics Federation of India asked her to take a gender test, which used the more recent methodology of testing how much testosterone she had. It was determined that her natural levels of testosterone were usually only found in men and she was asked to undergo “corrective” surgery, which can involve hormone suppression therapy and sometimes even genital surgery. This is the prescription provided by the International Olympic Committee and other top sports bodies.
But Chand refused to undergo treatment, declaring at the time, “I am who I am.” A court subsequently suspended these rules for two years and the evidence behind the method is currently being re-assessed. Whether or not this method has any meaningful validity, it is worth noting that the use of testosterone as the primary indicator of gender builds a certain degree of fluidity into the process and divorces gender from any particular fixed physical attribute.
But what does it mean that the International Olympic Committee’s testing apparatus is given more weight than Chand’s experience of her own body? Harvard Professor Sheila Jasanoff’s work on the creation of legitimacy in democratic societies through science and situated political culture is particularly useful here. This example shows the cracks that can occur in that legitimacy when divergent forms of knowledge are confronted. Given this context, it is probably not surprising that a committee attempting to define a global conception of gender has led to a lot of controversy.
Leaving aside for now the question of whether sports should be segregated at all given the necessary arbitrariness of any line drawn, the kind of moral panic people express when they cannot categorize someone as either male or female highlights the social pressures that exist around identification.
Rachel The most common categories you hear about are sex and gender. When we think about gender, as opposed to sex, we tend to see it as the less-straightforward, less-biological term. While current studies often refer to sex as “a set of anatomical differences between males and females,” they often refer to gender as “a multi-dimensional socio-cultural construct that includes identity, behaviors, and beliefs.”
John Money originally started using the term “Gender role” in journal articles in the 1950s to differentiate from the commonly understood “sex role,” which was seen as completely biological. This distinction was used far beyond what Money might originally have imagined as it was taken up by feminists as a new conceptual tool. A fact that is well illustrated by a rise in the use of the word “gender” in academic papers in the ‘60s. More recently, some feminists, most prominently Judith Butler, have also gone further and rejected the notion that there is something called biological sex that can ever be totally untangled from the social understandings of sex. However many of us continue finding a distinction between sex and gender useful in order to free an individual’s personality from whatever their biology may be.
So to open up this question of sex, we might start to think about: Where would you locate sex on the body? Genitals? X&Y chromosomes? The brain?
Michelle– Complicating the concept of sex Today’s academic “sexologists,” as they are called, distinguish between chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, genital sex, sexual identity, and even quote un quote brain sex. Each of these factors fall along a spectrum that can vary widely across members of a particular sex, to such an extent that many researchers have suggested that our commitment to a two-sex system is itself misplaced. The scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling has famously suggested that humans could more properly be categorized into at least five different sexes. Nonetheless, both the biological study of sex differences and our social norms remain deeply committed to the idea of a dichotomy between men and women.
Meanwhile, sex differences and the biological factors that determine sex differences vary dramatically between species, as well. Populations of nematodes, for example, consist of hermaphrodites and males. Meanwhile, although humans have two sex chromosomes–the X and the –other animal species can be found with 10 sex chromosomes, or only one. In fact, many important sex-determining genes aren’t located on the sex chromosomes at all, and as the historian Sarah Richardson points out in her book Sex Itself, even the term “sex chromosome” may itself be misleading, as it obscures the essential contributions to sex determination made by genes located on other chromosomes. This diversity of sex-determining factors both within and across species makes it difficult–if not impossible–to locate sex in any one place on the body.
Rachel– Neurosexism Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying, and at times efforts to map sex onto the physical body can be extremely problematic. One pervasive idea is that human male and female brains are actually hard-wired differently. This has mapped onto what is known as a neuro-myth, or widely held belief that male and female brains are of different sizes due to some inherent capacity-based differences for males and females overall, but what goes into intelligence itself is much more complex. And in reality, the fact that men have slightly larger brains on average than females does not indicate greater intelligence. But in the extreme case of macrocephaly, which is the case of an abnormally large brain, having a larger brain isn’t necessarily a good thing. Brains of different sizes simply confront similar cognitive challenges while using differently sized and sometimes differently connected neural machinery. And because no two brains are exactly alike, the distinction between the male and female brain is less important in the grander scheme of human difference as a whole. An easier way to think about this is by using the idea of a country. You can’t just look like a country and know it’s GDP; similarly, looking at brain size alone cannot tell you about IQ.
Nonetheless, myths about the brain – and the misplaced idea that there are exclusive location in the brain that are responsible for certain types of actions such as emotional processing – have leaked into the ways we view males and females’ abilities in society. This kind of neurosexism ignores the complex reality of all of the interconnected networks of the brain that are responsible for a variety of actions, and places gross generalizations on our bodies that tend to hide more than they reveal.
Michelle– Early modern anatomy Attempts to locate sex in the body are nothing new. Let’s go back to the 18th century. The newly flourishing science of anatomy promised an unprecedented understanding of the human body, as illustrators painstakingly began to dissect and document the human form. Interestingly, they ended up providing us with just as much of an understanding about their cultural beliefs as they did about anatomy.
As historian of science Londa Schiebinger describes in the book The Mind Has No Sex, anatomists in the early 1700s considered the skeleton to be a sort of foundational “ground plan” that lent organization and structure to other aspects of the human body. Thinkers at the time also believed that comparing the skeletal structures of different groups of people could reveal something fundamental about the differences between those groups. By that logic, any differences between male and female skeletons would indicate essential differences between men and women.
One of the most popular and widely circulated illustrations of the female skeleton from this time period was drawn by Marie Thiroux d’Arconville. Although this image was considered to be an accurate representation of the “standard” female form, it was in fact directly influenced by prevailing cultural notions regarding the differences between men and women. Thiroux d’Arconville’s skeleton featured wide hips and an extremely narrow rib cage, and in the commentary accompanying her illustration, Thiroux d’Arconville emphasized that these features differ from those found in males. In proportion to the rest of the body, women’s skulls are, on average, larger than those of men. Thiroux d’Arconville, however, represented the skull as proportionally smaller than a male skull.
Marie Thiroux d’Arconville’s skeletons. Female (left) and Male (right)
Because this image was taken to be representative of “the” female skeleton, it served to reinforce two underlying social assumptions. First, by emphasizing the extent to which the female skeleton varied from that of the male, Thiroux d’Arconville lent scientific credibility to the argument that men and women are fundamentally different on a deep, biological level. Second, by emphasizing the width of the pelvis but not the size of the skull, which at the time was considered a measure of intelligence, she reinforced the idea that the most “womanly woman” is one who gives birth, which reinforced social norms about the roles women ought to have in society–namely, that women ought to serve as mothers in domestic spaces.
Michelle– Reproductive organs While it’s tempting to believe that examples like this simply reflect a distant, sexist past, our cultural assumptions about gender norms continue to influence modern biology. Another example, presented by Emily Martin, an anthropologist at NYU, demonstrates the way in which prevailing gender stereotypes can affect the way that human reproductive organs are described in medical textbooks.
The egg is often represented much as a damsel in distress: she drifts passively down the fallopian tubes, waiting to encounter a sperm. Sperm, meanwhile, are generally described as active, searching, engaged in a perilous journey through the warm darkness of the genital tract. Some texts lend urgency to this quest by pointing out that the egg will die within hours of being released from the ovary if it is not rescued by a sperm. Of course, sperm also die within a few hours if they fail to encounter the egg. Most textbooks, however, use a tone of fragility and dependency only when discussing the impending death of the egg. Even though reality involves the mutual interplay between egg and sperm, textbook narratives often fall back on language describing the sperm as active and aggressive, and the egg as either passive or a femme fatale, luring unwitting sperm to their deaths.
As Harvard Professor Sheila Jasanoff has argued in her work on coproduction, the way we produce knowledge about biology is intimately tied to the ways we imagine ourselves and our societies. The metaphors scientists use to describe reproduction are not value neutral, but are representations of how our society thinks men and women ought to be. In turn, our social understandings of gender roles are affected by our interpretations of “nature” and “what is natural.” By recognizing that natural and social orders are coproduced, we can start to uncover why some representations of biological reproduction are more dominant than others.
Rachel Exactly! One of the things that might be influencing scientific representations of sex and and gender is the historical lack of women in science. In that vein, for many years, the egg received much less attention than the sperm cell in research, and female aggression received much less attention than that in males. The same is true with the lack of attention that is paid to the clitoris in medical textbooks and even sex education. Referencing Londa Schiebinger at Stanford again, knowledge about the clitoris, contraception, and women’s sexual health in general, was apparently much more widespread before male doctors replaced female midwives as women’s primary healthcare providers. Of course, women aren’t immune to sexist science, either (remember that skeleton we just talked about, which was drawn by a woman?), but I still have to wonder – if female scientists had an equal ability to direct research programs as did male scientists, would these disparities have been so severe?
Kellie– Research done by women, and on women’s health That’s a great question, Rachel, and yes, it’s impossible to know what science might look like now if women had a stronger historical presence in research. What is even more troubling is that this void of women in research was compounded by not studying females as research subjects, as well. For many years, most clinical trials were done on what was considered the stereotypical person a: “60 kilogram white male, 35 years of age.” In the 1980s, however, health activists started arguing that females should be included in clinical trials because it is unacceptable to assume that the findings from studies on men could be directly applied to women. By the 1990s, many health agencies started rolling out new requirements to include women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, and the elderly as research subjects. The most substantial of these policy changes came from the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993, which requires federally-funded research to include a broad range of human groups.
Steve Epstein, Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, has written about the positive and negative consequences of this change in NIH policy in his book, Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research. In the book, he highlights how the policies had a direct impact on clinical research. For example, in the late 1980s, a new drug called Seldane was selling quickly because it was the first antihistamine not to cause drowsiness. But clinicians soon noticed that one of the side effects of the drug, cardiac arrhythmia, was occurring more often in women. It turns out that women were experiencing higher rates of cardiac arrhythmia because the time period needed for the heart to recharge between beats becomes slightly longer for women after puberty. Scientists did not discover this until the 1990s, in part because the NIH started requiring them to pay attention to sex differences. So in the case of Seldane, the inclusion of women in clinical trials had a real impact on women’s health. In 2014, the NIH took these requirements even further and announced a new policy requiring researchers to use both male and female materials in preclinical research like animal studies and cell-line based research.
But the requirement to include women in clinical research, and female samples in preclinical research also makes some people nervous. First, the emphasis on sex differences could lead to improper treatment for a patient who doesn’t conform to the stereotype that pertains to her group. For example, the CDC recently released guidelines suggesting that sexually active women from ages 15-44 should not consume alcohol without being on birth control, because if they were to get pregnant, alcohol consumption could negatively affect the fetus. One of the problems with this recommendation, among many, is that it completely neglects women who are sexually active with other women, and therefore not at risk to get pregnant. The medicalization of sex and gender differences makes it easier for us to assume that women are a single category of people with the same behaviors and risk factors.
A focus on sex differences in clinical research could also lead to inaccurate and problematic understandings of sex and gender. Unlike research on biological differences between races, which has sparked heated debate about racial profiling, there has been no public outcry about presuming that men and women will react differently in clinical trials. When scientists split clinical trials into groups of men and women, we may be unintentionally solidifying the differences and boundaries between male and female — boundaries that many people, like queer health activists, have worked so hard to tear down.
Jessica– Bathroom gender policing Exactly. And these activists have been successful in many domains. For example, we have been seeing a national trend towards more inclusive bathrooms. Public bathrooms are a pervasive example of a space that has traditionally been designed only for men or only for women. Most of them are marked by just one of the classic faceless forms we are all so accustomed to. But for those for whom gender is not taken for granted, public bathrooms can be a source of great anxiety. Thanks largely to the work of people in LGBTQI communities, the number of gender-neutral bathrooms has grown considerably in the past decade. Many city-run facilities, workplaces, and more than 150 college campuses across the United States now have gender-neutral bathrooms to create safe spaces for trans and gender-queer people.
But this kind of progress is not without its pushbacks. As most of you will have seen on the news, North Carolina’s governor signed a bill in March banning transgender people from using the bathroom that fits their gender identity, instead forcing them to use the one consistent with their sex as noted at birth. Such policy is discriminatory and out of touch, and also risks putting people in danger. Numerous transgender people have shared shocking stories of the violence they have faced walking into what seems to be the wrong bathroom. As Attorney General Loretta Lynch put it on Monday when she spoke about North Carolina’s law, “State-sanctioned discrimination never looks good and never works.”
Bathroom signs at the Harvard Medical School Genetics Department
Jessica– Reproductive technologies But coming back to Kelly’s point about the way that women are being institutionally incorporated into scientific research, we also can’t forget the ways in which women’s bodies have been used by and for the advancement of science that hasn’t necessarily served them.
Similarly to traditional childbearing, assisted reproductive technologies are massively indebted to their use of women’s bodies. They can provide an important service for same-sex couples as well as for those struggling with infertility, and have enabled the birth of at least five million children (myself included!) But it is worth knowing that the history of in vitro fertilization (or IVF), and its impacts today are more complicated than the smiling faces of perfect babies we see on so many fertility clinics’ websites. Robert Edwards is the man credited for developing IVF and enabling the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby;” he won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for this important work. What many people do not know about this history however is that Edwards was also a member of Britain’s Eugenics Society for the majority of his career. He understood that having technological control over reproduction was about more than overcoming infertility; it was also about making choices about the kinds of people that should be brought into this world. Disability and racial justice scholars have argued that we should we be wary of this kind of normalization of high-tech eugenics into our world today that come in under the banner of greater autonomy and choice.
And although there are many women and couples who are enormously grateful to IVF, this is not a technology that necessarily improves women’s health outcomes, or that affects men and women equally. For example, the process of obtaining sperm and eggs in order to undergo IVF could not be more distinct. While a few minutes and a titillating magazine are usually the only requirements needed for a man to participate, the process for women is far more intrusive. Egg retrieval requires weeks of self-administered off-label synthetic hormone injections to first shut down and then hyper-stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs at once (instead of the usual one per month.) Women are then typically asked to take further medication to help the eggs to mature, to prevent their bodies from releasing them too soon, and to prepare the lining of the uterus. After a couple weeks of this, the eggs are removed from the body by inserting a long needle through the vagina and into the follicles to retrieve each one. Side effects of this process are many, but also include a unique risk known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome or OHSS. This is somewhat of a catch-all term used for a variety of symptoms that range from nausea and bloating to enlarged ovaries, severe abdominal pain, blood clots, and kidney failure in rare cases.
Of course the pregnancy that follows this – whether taken on by an intending mother or by a surrogate mother – is also the work of women.
There has been a recent marketing push toward so-called “egg freezing” by companies such as EggBanxx (spelled with two X’s) for healthy young women who are not infertile to voluntarily undergo egg retrieval and keep their eggs on ice just in case they may need them later. These companies are not technically regulated in the United States; they are encouraged to follow professional guidelines, but are technically flouting them by encouraging women who have no medical need to undergo these procedures. They advertise that egg freezing is a smart choice for career-oriented women who know they want a family one-day, but do not currently have Mr. Right, the time, or the money with which to currently have a child. In fact, I recently saw an ad up in a Harvard dorm that promised, “Free egg freezing!” The catch was that you would also give some of your eggs to another woman who is unable to conceive on her own.
Michelle Yes, I’ve definitely seen those ads. Actually, Vini and Angela, who also work on this podcast, went to an egg freezing recruitment party awhile back. It sounded pretty strange- drinking wine and talking about egg freezing. They’re going to do a whole episode in the fall on what happens to eggs when you freeze them… and what happens when you thaw them.
Jessica Yeah, egg freezing has definitely made headlines recently thanks to those parties, and to announcements by Facebook and other top technology companies that they will now off-set many of the associated costs (typically around $20,000) as a benefit to women who work for them. Such offerings highlight the distributional asymmetries of these technologies, right? Most women do not work in Silicon Valley’s top tech companies, nor do they have several tens of thousands lying around. Facebook’s announcement was billed as a way to attract women to traditionally male-dominated fields, but not all women see egg freezing as a real solution. Not least because even after three tries, frozen eggs fail to result in a live birth 77 percent of the time when taken from women aged 30, and 91 percent of the time when taken from women aged 40.
A compounding factor of the rise of IVF over the past three decades is that once you have embryos outside of the body, they can be genetically tested and people can make choices about which embryo to implant. This has provided a new tool for the practice of sex selection, since a couple that undergoes this process can now opt to implant only male or female embryos if they have a preference. The practice of sex selection (usually achieved through cruder means) is one that causes inordinate complications in some regions of the world… Mara Hvistendahl has written a great book called Unnatural Selection, which documents this trend and the fact that Asia alone now has 160 million missing women and girls, referring to all the girls that would have been born, if the pregnancies had not been terminated due to cultural and societal preferences for boys. Using IVF in order to purposefully choose the sex of your child is still a rare, and expensive practice though there have been cases in the news. But as people wait longer to start families and more people around the world opt for IVF, parents-to-be will increasingly be faced with the question: do you want a boy or a girl? Not only do these kinds of questions reinforce problematic notions of biological determinism, but they may also devalue the existence of women and girls alive today.
Kellie Wow, so sex selection leads us back to the social implications of privileging male bodies over female bodies, or to privileging gender conforming bodies. Devaluing females, the reproductive machines of human beings, seems a bit counterintuitive, right?
Jessica Right! And women’s eggs are not only useful for reproduction. They are also desired for the advancement of certain areas of scientific research. For example, embryonic stem cell research, which is used to understand human development and disease and has prompted a small number of clinical trials, obviously uses eggs to make the embryos it requires. Additionally, research being carried out on genetic modification techniques such as mitochondrial replacement and CRISPR gene editing also need women’s eggs.
So you start to see the strange interconnections between science, society, and gender. At the same time that assisted reproductive and stem cell technologies offer opportunities to “escape” our biology in meaningful ways, the language, economy, and politics surrounding them are still largely defined by fairly fixed social norms. UC Berkeley Professor Charis Thompson explores the ontological choreography of these multiple competing claims on meaning in her books Making Parents and Good Science.
These examples highlight the ways in which science tends to benefit from women’s bodies, even while the women themselves are often erased from the stories of scientific advancement we hear.
Rachel– Gender identity and school Erasing women from stories is something that speaks to my interests in education and social relationships, as well. Taking this idea of women’s presence in the world to the level of children, when kids don’t see women in the texts and stories they read, when they don’t see women as researchers, it greatly influences the perceptions they develop about themselves and their capacities. It’s a super important thing to take into consideration.
One simple example of this is the phrase “Good morning, boys and girls,” which is a common saying of welcome used by many K-12 educators. Or even something like “let’s sit boy-girl, boy-girl,” Many times, these simple phrases are taken for granted in the classroom, but scholars such as Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts have taken a deeper look into whether the ascription to certain gender roles is actually innate in children. In an experiment, both girl-identifying and boy-identifying, as well as gender nonconforming students, were given red and blue t-shirts, randomly. Teachers were then instructed to address the class by saying “Good morning Blues and Reds,” or “let’s sit blue-red, blue-red” rather than using gendered language. What researchers found was quite interesting; students began to segregate themselves along the lines of the color of their shirts, rather than by gender. They even started to report higher opinions for peers in the same color group as their own.
But even changing the ways we talk to and ask students about their own identities does not highlight one of the most pressing issues of our time. While I spoke earlier about the ways that allowing or not allowing self-identification greatly impacts a student’s’ perception of how he or she or ze is allowed to identify, seeing societally recognized identities in popular media, on television and even in the classroom also affects this “image” that children feel they are allowed to have for themselves. A funny example of this is an anecdote that sort of flips this equation around. There was this woman and mother who was a rocket scientist. Many of her friends were also female rocket scientists. One of these friends asked her son son whether he wanted to be one too he responded, “No way! that’s a job for girls!”
However, the majority of scientists, famous figures in textbooks, and examples used in the classroom embody the identity, socially and politically, of a wealthy, white, male-identifying individual. While numerous studies have documented the effects of not being able to see oneself as the protagonist in a story, or not being able to identify with the social identity of a doctor, a lawyer, etc. the true effects of the prevalence of the male perspective in curriculum more broadly has not been widely documented. I think it becomes important to look closely at the ways in which we not only construct difference, but the ways in which we allow these differences to seep through into the decision making of the narrative we tell kids. Similar to the language used to welcome kids into the classroom, curriculum, no matter how well-prepared can be biased towards one type of student; and that’s just wrong. Achievement gaps seem to raise public attention on this, but money is not the only factor in why certain students do better than others, and at the risk of oversimplifying this point, I think it might be best to think about the importance of critically analyzing the influence of certain dominant perspectives.
No surprise to most psychologists and sociologists, it really is our societal structures and constant reinforcement of gendered norms that creates many of the quote unquote gender differences we see in society.
Michelle Rachel, that’s a really interesting point you make about how children’s experiences around gender influences how they view and perform their gender. The way you’re talking about it, it could be all cultural, but there’s also some evidence that our experiences especially in early development influences how our bodies and brains develop. So these experiences kids have regarding gender (and other things) could actually lead to biological differences between people WITHOUT there being any genetic basis for these differences. Just like malnourishment in childhood can make people shorter or early language acquisition affects auditory regions of the brain, we might learn how to act (either more masculine or more feminine) early on, all of which then becomes embedded in our biology.
Rachel Fascinating! And regardless of whether these expressions of gender have a biological basis, our cultural expectations of gender norms can themselves have a profound impact on people’s behaviors. I remember the recent book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” by Claude Steele who talks about “stereotype threats,” which basically result from the ways that social acceptance of the dichotomies and definitions science often talks about have implicated certain sub-groups of the population.
For example, a girl who might have been subjected to certain expectations of being bad at math, or only good at humanities, or whatever the social stigma currently is, if asked about their identity prior to taking an exam, actually did worse on the exam. Calling this a self-fulfilling prophecy or a negative blow to self-esteem isn’t going to change anything; however, Steele’s work has highlighted the influence of societal stereotypes on students and their ability to do well in the education system. Making the change to ask demographic questions at the end of a survey, rather than the beginning, for instance, and even allowing students to self-identify, instead of pick from check boxes speaks to the larger idea of preventing difference-based exclusion and providing better, more inclusive environments to students that do not segregate or stereotype them based on their sex or gender, or any of the ways in which they self-identify.
Jessica Throughout this episode, we’ve problematized three types of boundaries: those between sex and gender; those between male and female; and those between their biological and social constructions. And yet, we’ve seen how the ways that these boundaries are drawn can have profound effects on people’s lives. As we learn how messy biology really is, and how important our surroundings are in constituting that biology, we should think critically about who has the power to police these borders, as well as the way that science has been used as a legitimating force in seeing and creating differences. So, what do you all think – Who should get to decide? And whose knowledge should be prioritized when it comes to science, sex, and gender?
Kelly Thanks for tuning into SiT’N Listen! We’ll be back soon with more episodes: on using animals in scientific research, the possible reproducibility crisis going on in science research now, and many more. In the meantime, we want to hear your thoughts on science and gender; and your suggestions for the podcast. E-mail us at email@example.com or tweet @SITNBoston. If you liked today’s show, definitely subscribe on iTunes and leave us a review. We’re really grateful for any feedback we get and positive reviews will help others find our podcast. The SITN blog and this episode’s show notes can be found at our shiny new website http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/
Until next time….
This episode was recorded live at Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments on May 11, 2016. It was made possible by generous support of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard, Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard Medical School, the Harvard COOP, and the Graduate Student Council of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The event was recorded by Bay State Event Solutions and audio edited by Michelle Frank. Theme music by Kelsey Sakimoto
“An Imperfect Dividing Line” by Alex Hutchinson – The New Yorker
Origins and Definitions of Sex
“Sex Science and Gender Culture” by Katherine Xue – Harvard Magazine (a review of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome by Sarah Richardson)
Inclusion in Medical Research
Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research by Steven Epstein – University of Chicago Press.
Good Morning Blues and Reds!
“Dear Facebook, Please Don’t Tell Women to Lean In to Egg Freezing” by Jessica Cussins – The Huffington Post
Generation I.V.F. by Miriam Zoll – Lilith