IRWG director hopes to create 'go to' center for gender studies

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Londa Schiebinger

Londa Schiebinger, the new director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), wants to make it the "go to" center for gender studies everywhere.

Recognized as a leading scholar on gender and the history of science, Schiebinger was hired last spring, following a nationwide search, to lead IRWG as the Barbara D. Finberg Director for the next five years. She is also a professor in the Department of History.

Schiebinger, 52, most recently held the Edwin E. Sparks Professorship of the History of Science at Pennsylvania State University, where she and her husband, Robert N. Proctor, co-directed the Science, Medicine and Technology in Culture Program for nine years. The couple met at Harvard, where they earned their master's and doctoral degrees in 1977 and 1984, respectively. Proctor also is a historian of science who was recently appointed to the Stanford faculty.

Schiebinger has ambitious plans to expand the institute's reach across campus. So far, $3 million toward a new $10 million endowment has been secured that will establish a broader financial base supporting new programs. The centerpiece of the institute's new initiatives is a Research Fellowship Program open to faculty and graduate students, as well as national and international scholars. During the next few years, she said, scholars will be selected for work on women and gender in science and technology.

According to Schiebinger, few scholars are trained in both the sciences or engineering and gender analytics. By bringing together research scholars from disciplines such as biology, history, physics, computer science, philosophy and engineering, IRWG hopes to create a critical mass of thinkers focused on gender issues that will add a creative spark to an understanding of how gender influences theory and practice of the sciences and engineering. In subsequent years, she said, the program will be devoted to research on women and gender in the arts and humanities, business, law and medicine.

"When offering fellowships to faculty external to Stanford, we will partner with departments of science and engineering in order to ensure that IRWG visiting faculty will become integral members of their research communities," Schiebinger said. "In this way, findings concerning gender, methods of gender analysis and sensitivities to gender issues will become integrated into core disciplines." Fellows also will be asked to lecture on and publish their findings.

To launch the Research Fellowship Program, the institute will host an international conference titled "Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering" in April 2005. The event, co-funded by the National Science Foundation, will look at how gender analysis has changed particular fields of science. For example, Schiebinger said, the U.S. federal government in 1990 founded an Office of Research on Women's Health in the National Institutes of Health that has worked to redefine medical research with respect to female subjects. Biology, archaeology and primatology are other fields that have benefited from this new critical filter, she said. "Questions remain, however, concerning whether gender analysis has anything to offer physics, mathematics or chemistry," she added.

In conjunction with the focus on gender in science and technology, the institute plans to launch a multi-year study called "The 10 Top Tech Companies for Women in Silicon Valley" that will investigate how female scientists and engineers fare in leading area firms. "Silicon Valley has captured the national imagination as a place where unique and innovative thinking leads to valuable new technologies and products," Schiebinger said. "Yet, when it comes to providing opportunities for women to participate in the high-technology economy, [such firms] may lag behind other more traditional sectors nationwide."

IRWG autumn events

In addition to research programs, IRWG runs workshops and conferences designed to influence public policy, Schiebinger said. "Difficult Dialogues," a forum on gender and ethnicity, has focused on "The Changing Structure of the Family" for two years. To conclude the series, the institute will host a conference Oct. 16 on "Valuing Families: A Debate Over What Works." Timed to take place shortly before the presidential election, the goal of the daylong event is to raise the level of public debate about families, marriage and children, Schiebinger said. The conference is being organized with the University of Maryland's Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy, and reporters will moderate panels on "Work and Family," "Family Supports for Children," "Marriage Promotion" and "Family Diversity." Stanford participants include education Professor Myra Strober, psychology Assistant Professor Jeanne Tsai, psychology Professor Emerita Eleanor Maccoby and law Professor Michael Wald.

The following day, on Oct. 17, IRWG and the Ms. Foundation for Women will co-sponsor a meeting called "Supporting Boys' Resilience: Expanding Definitions of Masculinity and Manhood." Susan Wefald, a director at the Ms. Foundation, will open the daylong event on issues such as "The Media and Masculinity" and "Boys, Masculinity and Family." Stanford participants will include Strober and Judy Chu, an IRWG scholar. Both conferences at the Stanford Humanities Center are free and open to the campus community.

Schiebinger said IRWG will not try to solve all problems on U.S. campuses related to hot-button issues, such as the retention and recruitment of women. "However, because we are a gender institute, we want to be a resource for people who want pieces of information about how universities work," she said. "We want to be a place where people can ask, 'How would we think about this?' You can't solve these problems if you [don't] step back and study them in an appropriate way. By having a strong gender institute, the university shows that it is committed to women's issues."