Designing women: Female influences in science examined

Courtesy of Volvo Concept Car

The nine women who were involved in the "Your Concept Car" project at Volvo are seen posing with their design, which was the subject of a special presentation at a weekend conference.

If women designed a car, what would it look like? A weekend conference at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender explored this and other examples of how women are influencing the fields of science, medicine and engineering.

Tatiana Butovitsch Temm of Volvo presented "Your Concept Car," the company's much publicized project in which she and eight other female employees designed and built a car aimed at female buyers.

The sporty vehicle has Batmobile-style doors that open up, making it easier to get in and out of the car. Storage bins within reach of the driver hold the miscellaneous items that often get tossed into the passenger seat. The vehicle has been designed for maximum visibility, and the controls adjust automatically to the driver's body size. The headrest is even made to accommodate a ponytail.

"I think the Volvo experiment let a new set of questions come up," said Sheri Sheppard of Stanford, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, former auto industry worker and amateur car racer and a self-proclaimed "car nut." Sheppard invited Temm to speak separately on April 14 to a group of about 50 engineers.

Other speakers at the two-day conference, held April 15-16, showed how feminist reinterpretations of archaeology are changing accepted ideas about prehistoric societies—for example, whether broad brushstrokes in cave paintings mean they would have been done by men, or whether simpler tools were necessarily made by women.

Gloria Sarto, a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin, reviewed how women doctors have advanced reproductive issues and are now advocating a broader concept of women's health.

Speakers stressed that this type of gender analysis is not just for women anymore.

"A lot of the work being done in the Women's Health Initiative is being done by men," commented Londa Schiebinger, the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a professor of history of science. Incorporating women's concerns "has become part of what good medical research is."

Despite the conference's upbeat theme, many talks addressed the continuing low numbers of women at the highest levels of science and engineering.

Mariel Velez, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, said she attended the conference as she contemplates raising a family in which both partners are professionals. She exemplifies a trend: Women scientists are far more likely to marry someone else in academia—making them especially vulnerable to the two-career conundrum.

"It's difficult when you don't see many women who have a family and who have tenure," Velez said.

Women scientists at the conference espoused views ranging from not thinking the sacrifices they had made to pursue an academic career had been worthwhile to feeling that women are changing their disciplines from the inside.

In a roundtable discussion Saturday afternoon, American and European speakers compared funding for women in science.

Sue Rosser, professor of science and technology studies and a college dean at the Georgia Institute of Technology, outlined what her institution has done with a five-year, $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to get more women into full professorships. Rosser has facilitated spousal hirings, set up leadership retreats for young female faculty and even built five lactation stations on campus.

A book on the conference theme, incorporating the papers presented, is in the works. Video footage of the event is available from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Hannah Hickey is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.