Winter 2008 Interaction
Gendered innovations are beginning to change the ways we live and think. Who would have imagined several decades ago that Harvard University would, for the first time in over 350 years, elect its first woman president, Drew Faust? Or that two of Stanford’s largest science labs, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and Bio-X, would be headed up by women? Or, on the product front—who would have imagined that an artificial knee would be developed with 19 unique features designed specifically for the female body? Or, on the knowledge front—that geneticists would drop the notion that mammalian sex is determined singularly by the Y chromosome and look instead to vibrant interactions between genes from both the male and the female?
Within universities it might be argued that gendered innovations of this sort had their origins in the humanities and social sciences. Since 1976, when I started graduate work at Harvard University, my field of study—history—has been remade. Today it enjoys a goodly proportion of women and minorities among its practitioners, but, just as important, what counts as “history” has expanded conceptually beyond wars, kings and presidents to embrace the history of sex, birthing, monsters, urban masculinities, early modern global trading networks (seen as foundational to Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia) and much else besides.
My own work has been devoted to bringing gendered innovations to the sciences. I was recruited to Stanford in 2004 to direct what is now the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research as it was being reorganized institutionally, moving from the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research to the School of Humanities and Sciences. The commission that reviewed the institute’s 30-year history and its mission sought a director who would cultivate interdisciplinary gender research and diversity in the sciences and engineering, bringing to these areas the kinds of innovations that have enhanced the humanities and social sciences in past decades. A tall order, indeed, requiring interdisciplinary approaches and deep structural change.
Gender work in any field is fiercely interdisciplinary. Stanford in a sense houses “two” universities—one where departments are based on traditional disciplines and one where programs (centers and institutes) work interdisciplinarily. We should remember that modern academic disciplines are arbitrary ways of slicing and dicing knowledge: Disciplines are historical, not natural. And disciplines that structure modern universities developed over the past 200 years when women, Jews and African Americans (to name a few) were stringently excluded from the academy. Disciplines bear the marks of those origins.
We need to be open to the possibility that human knowledge—what we know, what we value, what we consider important—may change when former outsiders become full partners in knowledge production. We know already that women tend not to “fit” in traditional departments; that is to say, they tend to bridge fields to build new areas of research. A recent National Research Council study showed that at the University of California-Berkeley 26 percent of female faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics hold joint appointments, versus 15 percent of male faculty.
Universities across the country have invested a lot of resources in creating diversity—particularly in the sciences and engineering where, with a few exceptions, the numbers of women are small. Programs in the 1970s began by attempting to solve the problem straight on by increasing funding to women’s research, teaching women how to negotiate for salary, setting up mentor networks or, more generally, teaching women how to succeed in a man’s world. It soon became evident that focusing on women in this way was too simplistic an approach. Consequently, the National Science Foundation retooled intellectually and launched its ADVANCE program in the 1990s aimed at “fixing” academic culture. Universities are beginning to work strategically to transform the ways universities do business in order to overcome subtle yet systematic gender bias in hiring, tenuring and other aspects of academic life. Changes at this level are deep, structural and broadly institutional.
Universities will not succeed in creating gender equality, however, until we fix knowledge. Western science—its methods, techniques and epistemologies—is celebrated for producing objective and universal knowledge, transcending cultural restraints. With respect to gender, race and much else, however, science is not value neutral. Gender researchers have begun to document how gender inequalities, built into the institutions of science, have influenced the knowledge issuing from those institutions. I have watched deans and department chairs struggle to increase the number of women in their groups, but to do so requires us to enlarge our view of what can and should count as knowledge.
In March the Clayman Institute will publish a volume, Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering, that provides concrete examples of how taking gender into account has fostered new research and sparked creativity in these areas. Several government agencies, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the European Commission, now require that requests for funding address whether, and in what sense, sex and gender might be relevant to the objectives and methodologies of the proposed research. As this volume documents, understanding and removing gender bias has brought about new insights to specific fields of science and engineering. Gender analysis, when applied rigorously and creatively, has the potential to enhance human knowledge and technical systems by opening them to new perspectives.
Gender research seeks to reconfigure disciplines, institutions and, ultimately, society. To these ends, the Clayman Institute harnesses the intellectual energies of our 160 affiliated faculty members from across Stanford’s seven schools and SLAC. Our Faculty Research Fellowship Program drives intellectual and social innovation by bringing together scholars from as near to home as the Terman Engineering Center and as far afield as South Africa’s national parks. Our Graduate Dissertation Fellowship Program has trained 100 students in gender research since its creation in 1994. Our Art at the Institute engages with contemporary gender issues and currently features Transfigurations, an exhibit of photos exploring the experience of transgendered people. Our in-house sponsored research examines topics basic to academia and industry. We are currently running three studies: One analyzes academic couple hiring at 13 leading research universities nationwide; and two others seek to understand how gender dynamics shape innovation in Silicon Valley, which in turn influences how we work and live. Finally, the Clayman Institute sponsors and co-sponsors lectures and documentary films on topics ranging from “Identity Politics and the Presidential Election” to “Same-Sex Desire and Union in China.”
Gender, then, is more than an academic study; it is a social system. Effecting cultural change requires foundational research, good communications and political action. Gender research can best contribute to that process by developing interdisciplinary methodologies to enhance knowledge across all fields, from the humanities to the physical sciences, engineering and beyond. It is intriguing that sciences such as biomedicine and biology, where gender analysis has flourished, have relatively high numbers of women in their ranks. In these fields, as elsewhere, the use of interdisciplinary gender methods has sparked creativity by identifying vital new questions for research. Can we afford to ignore such opportunities?