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Q+A: Gender scholar Londa Schiebinger


Londa Schiebinger, professor of history and the former director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, was recently awarded an honorary degree from Vrije Universiteit Brussel for her work founding Stanford’s Gendered Innovations project. The Daily sat down with Schiebinger to discuss her award-winning scholarship, the roots of her interest in gender and history and the sexism in the Barbie Doll’s first words.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): What questions do you primarily investigate in your research?

Londa Schiebinger (LS): There are three strategic approaches to the field of women and gender in science. The first is to look at women in science in particular. This is [studying] the biographies of great women. This is to study what percent of women there are at the faculty at Stanford, for instance– how many women, where are they, what fields do they cluster in.

And the second strategic approach is to look at gender in academic culture and… look more at the kinds of barriers women encounter [and] to look at how universities reasonably developed around men’s lives, because you know men were the professors from the 17th century until long into the 20th century. So those kinds of questions looks at what we need to do to transform institutions so both men and women can flourish.

And then the third strategic approach– which is really the one that I’m most interested in and have devoted a lot of my intellectual work to– is the question of, how do we use gender analysis to see something new? So this is a question of harnessing the power of gender analysis to discover new things in science and engineering. We often talk about bias in those fields, but if we do the research correctly in the first place we can avoid the bias and just get the very best research.

TSD: How did you become involved with such a dynamic– and pertinent– subject?

LS: When I was in graduate school, it was considered professional suicide to write anything about women. This was the late <\#213>70s, early <\#213>80s. I was a graduate student at Harvard University in the History Department, but eventually I got a Fulbright [Scholarship] and went to Germany, and it was getting away from my home department that gave me permission to really follow my intellectual passion. I was doing something called intellectual history and I was interested then in intellectual women, and when I got back from Germany to Cambridge, Mass., I was completing my dissertation and there was the very first lecture series on women in science [at MIT].

And I listened to these women for a while, and they were all telling a similar story. It was an interesting one, and I could see they didn’t understand the social structures behind their personal experiences and they didn’t understand the historical origins of the barriers they were encountering. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a historian. This is where my contribution can be.’”


TSD: Earlier in your Stanford career, how did you make the transition from history professor to the director of the Clayman Institute?

LS: I was recruited to direct the Clayman Institute and my tenure home was in history, so I was always half and half. Then I stepped down. The idea of the Clayman Institute is to keep the leadership rotating through different schools. We have never had two directors who were in the same discipline, which is really great for keeping that institute fresh, so I directed for six years<\p>…<\p>and then I just went back to my home in history.


TSD: Why did you step down from your Clayman Institute position when such a position seems so close to the research you do?

LS: [I stepped down] because it was time for [other] people to step up. I took one of the projects with me, the Gendered Innovation in Science, Medicine, Engineering and Environment [project], and that’s an international collaboration. That started kind of as a Stanford start-up, and then I got European Commission money and National Science Foundation funding, and through a series of international collaborative workshops we developed the Gendered Innovations project. The idea is that scientists and engineers who do not learn about gendered analytics in their curriculum can go to this website and see a message that might enhance their work.


TSD: Is there biological evidence that men are more predisposed to scientific success or is this a social construction?

LS: Oh boy, I see people have not taken my class. I teach two classes: One is Gendered Innovations… and then I teach one through Science, Technology and Society and History that’s called the History of Women and Gender in Science, Medicine and Technology, so this question that you’re asking requires about a week’s worth of analysis.

But the short answer is there are biological differences between men and women. However, the gender differences– the social experience that children have from such an early age– are so strong. So going back to the biology, we have never documented a biological difference that leads more men into science and more women not into science, but we have documented many, many social experiences that lead more men into science and fewer women.

For example, the very first time Barbie, the famous platinum blond doll, said anything, her very first words were “ Math class is tough.” OK, there’s a message for young girls.

And then Angelina Jolie, when she was playing [Evelyn] Salt, a big CIA operative, in one of her movies, smashes through a window as only Angelina Jolie can<\p>…<\p>and in the room she swings into, there’s a little African American girl doing math, and then Angelina Jolie turns to the camera and says “I hate math.”

Girls just don’t need too many of these messages before they think that math is not for them. So one thing we can do is change our culture and make science and math friendly for girls, and eventually women– this is one of the biggest things we can do to encourage more women into science and engineering.

TSD: What do you envision as the future of science and gender studies?

LS: Now we have developed these methods and case studies so that researchers can begin to understand how sex and gender function in their research, so what I see– what I think we will have– is science and engineering that in fact serves everybody well.

So, for instance, if you look at drug development, ten drugs have been withdrawn from the U.S. market recently and eight of those drugs worked worse in women. So if researchers can get the research right from the beginning, we won’t have this very expensive phase of having drugs that really don’t work well for people. I see a future where the research will truly be excellent.

This interview has been condensed and edited

McKenzie Andrews writes as an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. Originally from Nashville, McKenzie is a sophomore pursing a B.A. in Economics. She interns at the Graduate School of Business, serves as the Financial Officer for a Christian student group and competes with the traveling Model United Nations team. She covers global and local issues that affect the Stanford student body.