Science, Sports, and Women

We have spent a lot of time the past few weeks in my Deep Time science course discussing the contributions of women in science and how they were largely ignored because of the gender of the scientists. Even though we’ve made a lot of progress, gender discrimination is still a big issue, as Mika LaVaque-Manty points out in his book, The Playing Fields of Eton. He comments on this specifically in his chapter “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities”. We’ve touched on the theme of gender inequality throughout the Political Theory course, so it is interesting to see how closely it is related to my science class. We see today that, as a way to make reparations for the treatment of women in science, many high schools, universities, and clubs offer separate programs or scholarships for women interested in science. In the discussion section for my science course we debated whether special treatment for women in science and other related fields is a good or bad thing.  The intent of this post is to relate LaVaque-Manty’s work to the present day occurrence of programs for women in science.

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Mika LaVaque-Manty’s book, The Playing Fields of Eton

Women have been excluded from most anything that was considered a “man’s” pastime all throughout history. Whether it was sports or education, there were very few opportunities for women and they were hard to come by. LaVaque-Manty writes that he doesn’t want to propose that “gender differences are somehow permanently real” (132). Some in my class argued that having separate programs or scholarships for women pursuing a concentration in a science or engineering field perpetuates the segregation of genders in science. Their argument suggests that by continuing to offer special treatment to women in science, we make gender differences permanent.

I am not of this opinion. I feel that programs for women in science are a positive step towards making all fields accessible, given our recent history of discrimination.  Like LaVaque-Manty writes, sometimes “equality requires the acknowledgement of differences” (133). We cannot pretend that women are on exactly the same playing field as men. We build off of our history and our history has discriminated against women. In sports, women were discriminated against because they were thought to be physically weaker and less capable of competing. Sports for women were not socially acceptable for a good amount of time and we see the ramifications of that today in the significantly lower turnout and fan-base for women’s sporting events. In science, women were discriminated against because they were thought to be mentally inferior. It was not thought that they could make significant contributions. When they did, men felt threatened.

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Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist

Rosalind Franklin was a scientist whose work contributed greatly to the discovering of the shape of DNA. Though Watson and Crick are credited with discovering the shape of DNA, they could not have done it without Franklin’s research. However, she received very little credit. In the published work about the findings, Franklin was listed after male research assistants in her lab, making it seem as though her contributions were equal or even lesser to theirs. Franklin made it through the obstacles in place to stop women from entering the science field. She proved her capability (and beyond that, excellence) in her field. However, she still did not earn the respect of men in the field. This attitude has had long lasting effects. Even now, science is a predominantly male field. Programs for women in science are not an attempt to give women the upper-hand but rather to encourage an even playing field.

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A girls only STEM program, meant to promote the involvement of women in science, technical, engineering, and medical fields.

Sports have a “legitimately discriminatory nature” (137) because they separate the good athletes from the bad athletes. This is only natural and no one would expect it to be different. Science is the same way. Good and ‘bad’ scientists are naturally separated by who is doing important work and advancing the study. Should we be separating them beyond that? Shouldn’t we let credentials speak for themselves, regardless of gender? Perhaps it is a little different in sports, but I feel that the same theory applies to this situation. There are unavoidable differences. Women are physically different from men. Not inferior, but different. On the professional level, gender-segregated sports are necessary because of these differences. Women have historically been discriminated against in the field of science. They are different from men because of the opportunities afforded them, but not due to any physical or intellectual differences. Because of this, there are less women working in the science field. It may be intimidating to girls interested in science to be surrounded by boys. It is for this reason that we should encourage women’s only programs from a younger age. Contrary to sports, the genders should be mixed at a professional level. However, at a young age, when girls may be teased or intimidated by being in a “boy’s” subject, we should put them in a different environment to allow them to thrive without fear of bullying by peers.

One thought on “Science, Sports, and Women

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post! I agree with you that programs for women in science is a positive step forward. I also like your opinion that women are physically different, not inferior. There are so many institutional barriers that create stereotypes against women. However, programs create opportunities and starts to break down those negative barriers.

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