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Sex and Gender


Questions about the degree to which concepts of sex and gender influence science and engineering or are appropriate subjects for scientific research and technological manipulation are fundamental ethical issues. This entry discusses those issues and describes the genesis of the development of sex and gender discussions related to science and technology. The focus then shifts to the role of sex and gender in scientific knowledge and issues of inequity and their implications.

Historical Background

Gayle Rubin (1975) described the sex and gender system, distinguishing the biology of sex from the cultural and social construction of gender and revealing the male-centered social processes and practices that constrain and control women's lives. Rubin extended the implications of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1947), who initiated the intellectual, theoretical foundations for the second wave of the women's movement, which itself built on the nineteenth-century first wave and took an activist turn in the United States in the context of protests and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. De Beauvoir provided the philosophical basis for existentialist feminism by suggesting that women's "otherness" and the social construction of gender rest on a social interpretation of biological differences (sex).

Rubin articulated the connection between biological sex and the social construction of masculinity and femininity that resulted in superiority being attached to what was labeled masculine and discrimination against what was defined as feminine across various societies. Although the definition of the tasks, roles, and behaviors that were considered masculine or feminine varied among societies, the lower status ascribed to the feminine and to femininity remained consistent. Rubin's articulation of the operation of the sex/gender system in a variety of contexts within a society and across societies provoked ethical questions about unequal treatment based on sex/gender in all arenas, including science and technology. That explication of the sex/gender system led to questions about whether sex/gender biases had permeated science and engineering on a variety of levels.

Sex and Gender in Scientific Knowledge

Inaccurate use of definitions and terms for sex and gender may lead to causal links that go beyond what the data warrant. As Londa Schiebinger (1993) documents, human, particularly male, interest in certain anatomic features, such as mammary glands, has even influenced the taxonomic divisions and biological definitions of animal species. Moreover, aware of the fluidity in biological sex among a variety of species in the animal kingdom, including humans, biologists have explored the definition of biological sex and inappropriate extrapolations from the simplistic binary categories of biological male and female to the gender identities of masculine and feminine as well as inappropriate assumptions of their links with particular sexual orientations.

Indeed, although at the time of birth attendants categorize newborns into the binary category of male or female, numerous clinical examples demonstrate that biological sex can be disaggregated into genetic, hormonal, internal anatomic, and external anatomic components. Typically a genetic male (XY) produces some testosterone prenatally that causes an undifferentiated fetus to develop internal organs such as testes and external structures such as the penis that normally are associated with males. Breakdowns or changes at any level may cause development to take a different path. For example, individuals who are genetic males (XY) with androgen insensitivity (testicular feminization) have testes but have female external genitalia; individuals with Turner's syndrome (genetic X0) at birth have the anatomy of females (although their genitals may remain immature after puberty and they may or may not have ovaries) but do not have the XX sex chromosomes associated with "normal" females.

It once was assumed that after birth an individual categorized as male produces increased levels of testosterone at puberty that lead to the development of secondary sex characteristics such as facial hair and a deep voice, whereas a female develops breasts and begins menstruating in the absence of testosterone and in the presence of estrogen and progesterone. Clinical conditions such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) demonstrated further breakdown in the uniformity of biological sex. The absence of the enzyme C-21-hydroxylase in individuals with CAH results in genetic females (XX) with female internal genitalia but male external genitalia.

These breakdowns demonstrating that being a genetic male does not always result in an individual with functioning male anatomy and secondary sex characteristics not only weakened the binary sex categories of male and female but also led scientists to question biologically deterministic models that linked the male sex with male gender identity, male role development, and heterosexuality. Statistical and interview data from the Kinsey Reports, coupled with clinical studies, revealed difficulties with the use of binary categories and assumptions of causality. For example, the studies of John Money and Anke Erhardt (1972) explored so-called ambiguous sex, or babies born with external genitalia "discrepant" with their sex chromosomes and internal genitalia, that is, genetic females (XX) with ovaries but with an elongated "penoclitoris" and genetic males (XY) with testes and androgen insensitivity.

Many of the babies in those studies were genetic females who had ambiguous external genitalia at birth because their mothers had been given synthetic progestins to prevent miscarriage. Money and Erhardt concluded from those studies that operations and hormone treatments that were intended to remove ambiguity would not prevent the "normal" development of gender identity congruent with the assignment of sex based on the construction of external genitalia, regardless of genetic or internal anatomic sex, as long as that reassignment occurred before eighteen months of age. At the time of those studies some ethical questions were raised about surgical attempts to construct "normal, appropriate" external genitalia, especially in the case of male identical twins in whom an accident during circumcision resulted in the amputation of the penis in one of the twins and the surgical reconstruction of genitalia for reassignment of that twin to the female sex.

Some people questioned the assumptions that Money and Erhardt made about appropriate gender identities and roles, such as whether exposure to androgens had resulted in the higher IQ of those genetic females and whether the parents of sexually reassigned individuals treated them in ways that would influence the children to develop an "appropriate" gender identity. In recent years more emphasis has been placed on the ethics of using surgery and hormones to provide conformity between biological sex and socially constructed gender roles. As adults the patients have raised questions about who made the decision to do sexual reassignment, who decided what was appropriate gender identity, and in many cases why they had not been told that those medical and psychological interventions had been performed on them.

Described as a solution for individuals who always felt that they were trapped in a body of the wrong sex, transsexual surgery became popular in the 1970s to make the socially constructed gender identity of individuals congruent with their biological sex. Although large numbers of "dissatisfied" or "problematic cases" of individuals who had undergone transsexual surgery surfaced almost immediately, realization by the broader medical and mainstream community that sex and gender are not the same and that binary categories of male and female, as well as masculinity and femininity, may be too limited and constraining, took longer.

John Money's treatment of Bruce/Brenda Reimer, as analyzed in a study by John Colapinto (2001), was instrumental in casting doubts on Money's social constructionist theories. Although the philosopher Janice Raymond (1979) pointed out that transsexual surgery would not be needed in a society that did not force people to conform to constricted, dichotomous gender roles based on their sex, not until the late 1990s did the transgender movement begin. Leslie Feinberg (1996) discussed how the social construction of gender allows her to assume a male gender role/identity without intending to undergo transsexual surgery; Feinberg understood and wanted to challenge the notion that biological sex determines gender, which is a social construction.

Inequitable Access to Science and Engineering on the Basis of Sex/Gender

Statistical data demonstrate a dearth of women in the physical sciences and engineering, suggesting that the sex/gender system prevents equitable access to education and employment in science and engineering for women and girls. The data document that legal actions in the late 1960s and early 1970s to remove the quotas (usually set at around 7 percent) on qualified women applicants to law, medical, and graduate schools have increased the percentages to parity in most fields. The physical sciences, computing, and engineering are major exceptions.

Although the number of women majoring in scientific and technological fields increased since the 1960s to reach 49 percent in 1998, as Table 1 demonstrates, the percentage of women in computing, the physical sciences, and engineering remains low. The percentage of graduate degrees in these fields earned by women is even lower. The small number of women receiving degrees in the sciences and engineering results in an even smaller percentage of women faculty members in those fields: For example, in 2000 only 19.5 percent of science and engineering professors at four-year colleges and universities were women. Outside academia the percentage of women in the scientific and technical workforce, which includes the social sciences, hovered at approximately 23 percent.

The Dearth of Women and a Gendered Science

Evelyn Fox Keller (1982, 1985) explored whether the dearth of individuals of one sex has led to the construction of a gendered science. Keller coupled work on the

Women as a Percentage of Degree Recipients in 1996 by Major Discipline and Group
 All Fields All Science and Engineering Psychology Social Sciences Biology Physical Sciences Geosciences Engineering Computer Science Mathematics
SOURCE: National Science Foundation. (2000). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, pp. 119, 170, 188.
Percentage of bachelor's degrees received by women55.
Percentage of master's degrees received by women55.939.371.950.
Percentage of doctoral degrees received by women40.031.866.736.539.921.921.712.315.120.6

history of early modern science by David Noble (1992) and Carolyn Merchant (1979), who demonstrated that women were excluded purposely and not permitted to be valid "witnesses" to scientific experiments, with theories of object relations for gender identity development. Keller applied the work of Nancy Chodorow (1978) and Dorothy Dinnerstein (1977) on women as primary caretakers of children during gender role socialization to suggest how that might lead to more men choosing careers in science, resulting in science becoming a masculine province that excludes women and causes women to exclude themselves. Science is a masculine province not only because it is populated mostly by men but because that situation causes men to create science and technology that reflect masculine approaches, interests, and views of the world.

Biases in Research in Science and Technology

The gendered nature of science has led to biases on several levels that are best illustrated by citing examples in science and technology that have led to ethical dilemmas.

EXCLUSION OF FEMALES AS EXPERIMENTAL AND DESIGN SUBJECTS. Cardiovascular diseases are an example of the many diseases that occur in both sexes from which women were excluded from studies until androcentric bias was revealed. Research protocols for large-scale studies of cardiovascular diseases failed to assess sex differences. Women were excluded from clinical trials of drugs because of fear of litigation resulting from possible teratogenic effects on fetuses. Exclusion of women from clinical drug trials was so pervasive that a meta-analysis published in September 1992 in the Journal of the American Medical Association that surveyed the literature from 1960 to 1991 on clinical trials of medications used to treat acute myocardial infarction found that women had been included in less than 20 percent and the elderly in less than 40 percent of those studies (Gurwitz, Col and Avorn 1992).

Dominance of men in engineering and the creative design sectors may result in similar bias, especially design and user bias. Shirley Malcom, in a personal communication to this author, suggests that the air bag fiasco in the U.S. auto industry is as an excellent example of gender bias reflected in design. Female engineers on the design team might have prevented the fiasco, recognizing that a bag that implicitly used the larger male body as a norm would be flawed when applied to smaller individuals, killing rather than protecting children and small women.

ANDROCENTRIC BIAS IN THE CHOICE AND DEFINITION OF PROBLEMS. Some subjects that concern women receive less funding and study. Failure to include women in studies of many diseases that occur in both sexes, such as cardiovascular disease, suggested that women's health had become synonymous with reproductive health. After a 1985 U.S. Public Health Service survey recommended that the definition of women's health be expanded beyond reproductive health, in 1990 the General Accounting Office criticized the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for inadequate representation of women and minorities in federally funded studies (Taylor 1994). This resulted in the establishment of the Women's Health Initiative (Healy 1991), which was designed to collect baseline data and look at interventions to prevent cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and osteoporosis.

Having large numbers of male engineers and creators of technologies often results in technologies that are useful from a male perspective in that they fail to address important issues for women users. In addition the military origins for the development and funding of much technology makes its civilian application less useful for women's lives (Cockburn 1983). Men who design technology for the home frequently focus on issues that are less important to women users. For example, an analysis of "smart houses" reveals that those houses do not include new technologies; instead of housework they focus on "integration, centralised control and regulation of all functions in the home" (Berg 1999, p. 306). As Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1981) suggested, the improved household technologies developed in the first half of the twentieth century increased the amount of time housewives spent on housework and reduced their role from general managers of servants, maiden aunts, grandmothers, children, and others to that of individuals who worked alone doing manual labor with the aid of household appliances.

ANDROCENTRIC BIAS IN THE FORMULATION OF SCIENTIFIC THEORIES AND METHODS. Theories and methods that coincide with the male experience of the world become the "objective" theories that define the interpretation of scientific data and the use of technology. A 1996 study that included all prospective treatment and intervention studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Annals of Internal Medicine between January and June in 1990 and 1994 revealed that only 19 percent of the 1990 studies and 24 percent of the 1994 studies reported any data analysis by gender despite the fact that 40 percent of the subjects were female (Charney and Morgan 1996).

Excessive focus on male research subjects and definition of cardiovascular diseases as male led to under-diagnosis and undertreatment of those diseases in women. A 1991 study in Massachusetts and Maryland by John Z. Ayanian and Arnold M. Epstein demonstrated that women were significantly less likely than men to undergo coronary angioplasty, angiography, or surgery when admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of myocardial infarction, angina, chronic ischemic heart disease, or chest pain. A similar study (Steingart et al. 1991) revealed that women had angina before myocardial infarction as frequently as and with more debilitating effects than men, yet women were referred for cardiac catheterization only half as often.

These and other similar studies led Bernadine Healy, a cardiologist and the first woman director of the NIH, to characterize the diagnosis of coronary heart disease in women as the Yentl syndrome: "Once a woman showed that she was just like a man, by having coronary artery disease or a myocardial infarction, then she was treated as a man should be" (Healy 1991, p. 274). The use of the male as norm in research and diagnosis was translated into bias in treatments for women: Women had higher death rates from coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty (Kelsey et al. 1993).

In equally direct ways androcentric bias has excluded women as users of technology. The policy decision by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin (1993) to increase the percentage of women pilots uncovered the gender bias in cockpit design that excluded only 10 percent of male recruits by dimensions as opposed to 70 percent of women recruits. The officers initially assumed that the technology reflected the best or only design possible and that the goal for the percentage of women pilots would have to be lowered and/or the number of tall women recruits would have to be increased. That initial reaction, representing the world viewpoint of men, changed. When political conditions reinforced the policy goal, a new cockpit design emerged that reduced the minimum sitting height from 34 to 32.8 inches, thus increasing the percentage of eligible women (Weber 1999).

Implications of the Social Construction of Gender and of Science and Technology

Awareness and understanding of sex/gender biases raise the fundamental question of the way in which androcentric biases in scientific methods and theories occur. Should biological sex simply be termed essentialist and set aside, leaving the body to be viewed as a "coatrack" on which all that is cultural hangs, as suggested by Linda Nicholson (1994)? This interpretation implies that gender and all aspects of science and technology are socially, culturally constructed and nonobjective. Can scientists and engineers be objective? More important, is good science objective and gender-free? Or, as the title of Londa Schiebinger's 1999 book asks, Has Feminism Changed Science?

Most scientists, feminists, and philosophers of science recognize that no individual can be entirely neutral or value-free. To some "objectivity is defined to mean independence from the value judgments of any particular individual" (Jaggar 1983, p. 357). Scientific paradigms also are far from value-free. The values of a culture both in the historical past and in the present society heavily influence the ordering of observable phenomena into a theory. The worldview of a particular society, time, and person limits the questions that can be asked and thus the answers that can be given. Acceptance of a particular paradigm that appears to cause a "scientific revolution" within a society may depend on the congruence of the theory with the institutions and beliefs of the society (Kuhn 1970).

Scholars suggest that Darwin's theory of natural selection ultimately was accepted by his contemporaries, who did not accept similar theories proposed by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) and others, because Darwin emphasized the congruence between the values of his theory and those held by the upper classes in Victorian Britain (Rose and Rose 1980). In this manner Darwin's data and theories reinforced the social construction of both gender and class, making his theories acceptable to the leaders of English society.

The current ideas of Darwinian feminists and feminist sociobiologists such as Patricia Gowaty (1997) and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1981) provide a biological explanation for female-female competition, promiscuity, and other behaviors practiced in modern society. Evolutionary psychologists carry this work a step further by positing biological bases for differences in the psychology of men and women. These biological differences, such as the ability of women to experience pregnancy, birth, and lactation, may give women different voices in ethical experiences, as has been suggested by Sara Ruddick (1989).

Not only what is accepted but what is studied and how it is studied have normative features. Helen Longino (1990) has explored the extent to which methods employed by scientists can be objective (not related to individual values) and can lead to repeatable, verifiable results while contributing to hypotheses and theories that are congruent with nonobjective institutions and ideologies, such as gender, race, and class, that are socially constructed in a society: "Background assumptions are the means by which contextual values and ideology are incorporated into scientific inquiry" (Longino 1990, p. 216). The lens of the sex/gender prism reveals how the dominance of men and masculinity in Western society has masked the androcentrism and ethical bias of many scientific experiments, approaches, theories, and conclusions.


SEE ALSO Feminist Ethics; Homosexuality Debate; Sex Selection.


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