The Women Question in Science: Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium (WISEMS) 2012

Network Node: 

The Women Question in Science
Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium (WISEMS) 2012
Redpath Museum, McGill University

By Cindy Stelmackowich, Atlantic Node (Cluster Post-doctoral fellow)

For Richard Spiegel's blog on the event click                      HERE

The topics at this McGill Symposium focused on the representation of women in the sciences, the historical and current cultures of science, and the conditions for girls and women pursuing scientific activities. It brought together an engaging mix of speakers, including historians of science, practicing scientists and clinicians, as well as heads and deans of scientific research councils in Canada. The “rock star” status of astronaut Julie Payette, the first NASA Canadian astronaut to participate in a mission to construct the International Space Station, proved to be a popular draw, with her presentation pulling in a family-filled crowd into the Redpath Museum auditorium on Saturday afternoon.

The ways "the personal was/is political" became a resounding theme at the Symposium. It disclosed irreducible differences and a multiplicity of local knowledges. Looking back at the rise of the women’s political movement in North America starting in the late 1960s, the common debate between "personal" and "political" was used in order to raise consciousness about the private, yet shared, experiences women were experiencing as well as the obstacles they were facing in their personal lives and relationships, in their work experiences, and with notions of selfhood/identity. This consciousness-raising was not intended to solve any women's personal problems: it was a form of political action to elicit discussion. At this Symposium, the ways the “personal was/is political” allowed certain power relationships and political patterns to unfold, disclosing the complexities of the associations between gender, science and women.

The Symposium started with keynote speaker Dr. Margaret Rossitor, Professor of History at Cornell University, renowned for her work on the history and role of women in science. Her presentation revealed how her own personal and academic trajectory on the work of women scientists that began as a doctoral student, had a reflexive relation to the lives of the women scientists she was researching. In other words, her “personal” stories revealed how women constantly butt-up against a myriad of social “political” systems in which the male acts as the primary authority.

“There are no women scientists!” Professor Rossitor’s male doctoral advisors all exclaimed in the late-1960s when she asked them if they knew any women scientists. Yet, Professor Rossitor’s formidable trilogy of books that she produced in the decades that followed directly on women scientists in America, (the last in this award-winning series was published this year), has demonstrated that women have been present in American science throughout the nineteenth century even though they remained nearly invisible, with their contributions placed in the back ground rather than the foreground of scientific innovation and discovery. Her pioneering work in the field has led historians to question a number of assumptions, including: whether being a scientist or an academic was and continues to be a male concept; why girls and women are not interested in careers in science; if the epistemic values, expectations and context of science are hostile to women, and so on. 

In papers that followed, the lives and scientific contributions of a \ first generation women scientists at McGill were outlined and placed in historical and cultural context; one paper was on Carrie Derick (Canada’s first female professor and geneticist) and another on Maude Abbott (pathologist and specialist in congenital heart disease). These “female social reformers” as they were regarded, brought innovative teaching and contemporary research paradigms to McGill. As one speaker noted, a series of character traits these pioneering women scientists possessed become apparent: passion, resilience, patience, flexibility, innovation and imagination.

Women scientists currently teaching and researching at McGill presented not only on their research, but spoke of their stories as scientists in the present age (Dr. Catherine Potvin in Biology and Dr. Tracy Webb in Physics). Once again, the multiple ways the “personal is political” revealed significant information: the difficulties related to maintaining a university tenure-track position while raising a family; the continued disappointments witnessing women dropping out of science at the higher levels; and how the current publishing and research demands placed on scientists are not slowing, but only accelerating for everyone involved in university-based research initiatives. Once again, the paths that led them to their understandings and the events they have experienced as women scientists made it clear that they could not separate their scientific and political roles.

Although women have been actively recruited into the sciences over the last few decades, it has not always resulted in retention. A question that remains is are women choosing to pursue lives that are incompatible with the expectations of scientists? Perhaps the almost absence of women as directors of science labs and/or department heads, is symptomatic of a much deeper issue associated with the expectations of science. Does adding more women change anything if the norms of the culture of science remain unaltered?

What became evident to me is that there is not a full dialogue between female scientists and feminism. Women and girls pursuing science studies are not encouraged (nor have time) to take courses on gender or feminist analysis. Furthermore, women scientists remain largely outside the lens of feminist scholars. This may be due to the roots of women’s studies and feminist scholarship, which remains mainly in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It became obvious and imperative that the various Canadian university funding agencies (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC) must continue to support interdisciplinary collaborations between scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences with their colleagues in science, engineering and medicine. Women scientists should not be expected to “do” the history of women scientists, and historians and cultural theorists should have access to funding opportunities for research on topics/subjects outside of the Humanities. This Symposium where “the personal was made political” demonstrated that seemingly ‘old-fashioned’ consciousness-raising could continue to be a form of feminist political action to elicit discussion and disclose the complexities between gender, science and women.