In a world where gender bias penetrates every domain of life, can science be spared? Throughout history, science had been (and still is) perceived as the torchbearer of truth and knowledge. The image that science has acquired in history has given it an unquestionable status, thus allowing it to escape any form of critical inquiry. The scientific model, which claims rationality, complete objectivity, and, unbiased statistics gives compelling evidence that the method it employs is extremely ‘authentic’, and thus universally applied. However, the ground reality is far from authentic.
Science has an unquestionable status, allowing it to escape any form of critical inquiry.
Today, feminists have begun to debunk this esoteric nature of science and its claims on objectivity which are hampering the progress towards attaining gender equality. If we place science at par with other fields like art, religion, education, it is possible to question the epistemological claims of the discipline itself — who produces the universal knowledge, why is certain knowledge produced, and how is knowledge used. Questioning the fundamental assumptions made in and by the scientific discourse, are crucial for anybody who is engaging with the institution of science.
Sexism in the scientific discourse has manifested itself in various ways. In the past, numerous strategies were devised by Indian males to eradicate women from practicing science through gendered assumptions such as — science is impersonal and women are personal; science is objective and women are subjective; science is associated with reason and logic, while women are ‘soft’ and too sentimental to conduct scientific research, women are biologically less analytical than men and lack problem solving capabilities, among other claims. Simply put, such misogynist perceptions on women have delegitimized women as ‘knowers’ and contributors to the production of scientific knowledge making.
The gendering of the scientific space is deeply questioned by Indian feminists, who delve into understanding the exclusionary mechanism by which science operates, thereby validating who can or cannot enter its domain.
misogynist perceptions on women have delegitimized women as contributors to the production of science.
In the Indian scenario, a sharp gender imbalance is seen in terms of representation of women in the field of science — in school and occupation. The fundamental question of why are there such few women in science remains at the core of feminists engaging with science. Indian women have not been treated as equals in the scientific domain because they carry along with them burden of marriage and childbirth, thus preventing them from taking up high-ranking positions with their male counterparts. Instead, societal pressures force them into taking ‘soft’ jobs.
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Moreover, this ‘masculinised’ space of science has further marginalised women by classifying knowledge systems produced by them as ‘inferior’. For instance, in India, traditional practices of midwifery face discrimination because of their inability to conduct births in a so-called professional setting – which goes hand in hand with ‘scientific temper’. Since science favours written and not oral traditions of knowledge, it simply dismisses midwifery as redundant. Moreover, other indigenous knowledge systems such as knitting clubs, gardening groups, and baby showers among others are denied the right of being a part of ‘scientific’ knowledge.
Other forms of discrimination against women in the realm of science operates on the principle of objectivity. That is to say, the assumption that there is one single reality/absolute truth which everyone must adhere to. As a result, subjectivity can never be applied to scientific reasoning. This way of knowing is inherently classified as a ‘masculinised’ way of knowing since it dismisses the potential of multiple social realities and standpoints. Furthermore, this androcentric view of the world is used to exercise control over women and minorities, resulting in minorities being treated as mere objects of scientific research.
‘masculinised’ science has marginalised women by classifying knowledge systems produced by them as ‘inferior’.
So how can one possibly make science more credible? If one attempts to bring in minorities and people of colour in science, and thus incorporate multiple perspectives in the conduct of scientific research, one can begin a new journey which recognises alternative ways of perceiving scientific reality, without marginalizing certain sections of people in society. Not only does this give more credibility to scientific ways of knowing, but also blurs the exclusionary mechanism with which science operates — who gets to do science and who does not, who gets to gain from science and who does not.
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However, science defends its place on objective knowledge on two grounds. Firstly, because of the pure objective nature of science, it is supposedly free from any kind of bias. Secondly, because of the enormous amounts of quantitative data (numbers, statistics) involved, it is impossible to leave any room for subjectivity. So does that imply that this so-called ‘objective’ knowledge produced by scientists is not subjectively thought of? Is a scientist’s knowledge not moulded by their social location of gender, caste, class, race, and religion?
Is a scientist’s knowledge not moulded by their social location of gender, caste, class, race, and religion?
So is science bad? The answer is no. Despite such gender imbalances in scientific theories, one must keep in mind that not everything in science is bad. What is crucial is for scientists to acknowledge the probability of the presence of any form of bias, hence providing the reader with enough information to recognise them. Only when we are capable of accepting that we may have bias, can take a step towards producing knowledge that could be termed ‘authentic’.
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