Gendered Scientific Mythology

By Kevin Kadowaki (Loyola University Chicago)

Abstract | As women have historically been prevented from aspiring to scientific professions, it is not surprising that sexism remains a problem in professional science today. In particular, researchers have begun to understand the significance and power of implicit bias.  In this paper, I examine this implicit bias in the context of ‘scientific mythology’:  the narratives and stories we tell about science and scientists.  I argue that scientific mythology is gendered and that these gendered narratives feed into the problem of implicit bias.  Based on these observations, I argue that scientists have a particular responsibility to address the problem of gendered narratives and I propose two actionable remedies.

The underrepresentation of women in professional science is well-documented (Moss-Racusin et. al 1),  but the disparity of representation persists––even as theories about women’s inferiority with respect to scientific ability have been repeatedly disproven by concrete empirical evidence. Indeed, as feminist voices continue to question the motivations behind these theories, we are led to confront the traditional conception of the aim and scope of “real” scientific inquiry. It is no longer plausible to mark off the domain of the theoretical science from the pressing social concerns of justice and equality––what I will call the “theoretical-social distinction”––rather, we must recognize that science as a theoretical enterprise is necessarily responsible to science as a social institution. In this essay, I aim to elucidate an aspect of scientific discourse which underlies all of our other scientific discourse––a phenomenon closely associated with science but also traditionally relegated to the aspect of science as a social institution: the legacy of great scientists, the homage that is paid to them, and the stories we tell about them. Collectively, I will call these stories and honors scientific mythology.

My argument will proceed in four stages: first, I will examine the problem of sexism in science and isolate a particularly pervasive psychological aspect; second, I will advance a theory of scientific mythology which is complicit in this prejudice; next, I will argue that both scientists and science educators have a specific ethical responsibility to actively combat this prejudice; and finally, I will suggest and defend some specific courses of action for the amelioration of this problem with respect to scientific mythology.

i. The problem of sexism in science

As objectivity—that is, impartiality and lack of bias—is one of science’s highest virtues, it is natural that most scientists would pride themselves for their objectivity and strive for objectivity in their work. As such, some might protest that prejudice (and, for our purposes, sexism in particular) has no place in the scientific enterprise––some may be prepared to admit that prejudice encroaches upon science qua social institution, but science qua theoretical enterprise is largely viewed as proof against these failings.

Unfortunately, scientists have not only failed to live up to the aspirations of theoretical science; they have historically contributed to the problem of sexism by seeking to justify, and consequentially perpetuate, the social subordination of women and the denial of opportunities to women––especially in intellectual disciplines. This has historically taken the form of biological or psychological research that “demonstrated,” by some means or another, that the intellectual capacities of women were inferior to men, at least with respect to those capacities relevant to scientific inquiry and the life of the mind (Kourany 5-6).  Fortunately (in this case) science has the means to redeem itself, for other scientists have also demonstrated the error of these claims: more rigorous analysis reveals that “biological sex differences in inherent aptitude for math and science are small or nonexistent” (Moss-Racusin 1). Yet that scientists—claiming to practice “objective” theoretical science—are nonetheless susceptible to these kinds of flaws is our first indication of the shortcomings of theoretical-social distinction, for their social biases have clearly encroached on their ‘objective’ methods. And despite the self-correction these beliefs continue to persist––as recently as 2005, Harvard president Larry Summers openly suggested that the low proportion of women in professional science was due to biological differences in scientific ability (Des Jardins 4).

The persistence of these beliefs cannot be attributed solely to the slow movement of science; for while the scientific community is indeed slow to build consensus and supplant historically well-entrenched conclusions, these beliefs are questionably sporadic. By this, I mean that while the central conclusion (the claim that women are generally less suited for scientific inquiry than men) has remained the same, the “evidence” and methods supporting this claim have varied widely over time: from the idea that women’s heads (and therefore brains) are proportionally smaller, to the claim that women’s brains contain less ‘white matter’ (Kourany 5).  In other words, no particular method of ‘demonstrating’ this claim has lasted long enough to deserve the kind of inertial respect that is typically granted to long-standing scientific conclusions––and hence, we should not treat it as a scientific conclusion. Indeed, as scientific conclusions are supposed to be only as strong as the methodological and evidential foundations they are built on, we are led to suspect the claim (that women are not as scientifically capable as men) isn’t a scientific conclusion at all.

And unfortunately, these beliefs are too pervasive to be simply eliminated by counter-evidence, and have left their mark even deeper than mere conscious belief. A study of gender bias in academic science departments by Corinne Moss-Racusin (et al.) found that scientists are indeed susceptible to sexism: in a double-blind study, science faculty at research universities were given an application for a laboratory manager position with either a male or female name. In both cases, the application was identical (except for the name at the top)––but the study found that the male applicant was consistently ranked significantly higher than the female applicant in both competence and hireability by study participants. The male applicant was also offered a higher starting salary, and study participants were significantly more willing to offer their mentorship to the male applicant (2). In other words, practicing scientists consistently gave preferential treatment to the male applicant despite the fact that both applicants were identical––a clear case of sexism, for all variables except the gender of the applicant were held constant.

Furthermore, analysis of the study participants’ commentary on their ratings reveals that their justifications for these male-privileging decisions were not overtly sexist, but rather focused purely on competency––in other words, the female applicant was literally perceived as less competent than the (identically qualified) male applicant. These results were identical for both male and female study participants, and seem to indicate that the prejudice is implicit and unintentional––indeed, Moss-Racusin writes:

We are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended bias, stemming from the repeated exposure to cultural stereotypes. (1)

In her book Epistemic Injustice, Miranda Fricker offers a framework for this implicit perceptual prejudice: testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice is defined to be any identity-prejudicial credibility deficit––that is, the phenomenon where an individual is judged to be less competent or sincere in her testimony because of an identity prejudice on the part of the hearer (28). If we consider the facts of the study, we see that it perfectly falls into the schema of testimonial injustice: the female applicant was judged to be less competent than her identical male counterpart solely because of the participant’s implicit identity prejudice. Fricker’s account is particularly compelling because it gives us an account of perceptual prejudice––in her words, the prejudice actually “distorts the hearer’s perception of the speaker” such that “the hearer perceives the speaker as trustworthy to this or that degree” (36). This perceptual prejudice is particularly pervasive because it can inform our judgements viscerally, “without doxastic mediation” ––and thus may persist despite a conscious belief in the equal capacity of men and women for scientific inquiry (36).

Clearly, Moss-Racusin’s study indicates the presence of implicit testimonial injustice in contemporary academic science: if a female scientist is considered less competent than an equally qualified male purely by virtue of being female, she is wronged “in her capacity as a knower,” that is, in her “capacity to give knowledge to others” (44). But this study also shows us that the harms of implicit testimonial injustice go beyond harm to female scientists as knowers––the concrete, statistically measurable disadvantages of lower hireability, fewer mentorship opportunities, and lower starting salary will only serve to perpetuate the underrepresentation of women in professional science. The question, then, is how we can ameliorate this prejudice if it is implicit and perceptual; for this, we will need a more detailed account of our perceptions.

ii. Scientific mythology (and its gender)

We must first recognize that the implicit perceptual prejudice in question––that women are less competent as scientists than men––relies not only on a perception of women, but also on a perception of science. For any evaluation (implicit or explicit) of an individual’s capabilities is always with respect to some understanding of the expectations and standards of these capabilities; thus, it is the relation by which women enter into the expectations and standards of scientific inquiry that concerns us when dealing with perceptual prejudice.

What, then, are the expectations and standards of science? A general account might focus on the theoretical aspects: empirical evidence, strict objectivity, rigorous analysis, etc. Certainly these are the official expectations and standards of peer-reviewed journals, but such an account is entirely theoretical and describes science purely as process––and we have already established that the prejudice we are concerned with takes place below the level of reflective mediation. We must rather consider the common perception of science more generally; here, I propose that scientific mythology is a primary candidate for the mediating factor between the perception of science as a social institution and science as theoretical process.

By scientific mythology, I mean the collection of myths and stories that we tell about science: this includes everything from detailed histories of scientific discovery (e.g., accounts of Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos), to anecdotes (e.g., the story of Archimedes and the crown), to official recognition within the framework of science (e.g, Newton’s laws of motion, or the Nobel Prize in Physics). These stories fulfill two key criteria. First, they allow for a general understanding of the goals and methods of science without any technical background. Because not every person has a specialized background in science, these stories surround and mediate the public conception of science by introducing an understanding of science that does not require highly technical knowledge––that is, scientific mythology can communicate the goals and expectations of scientific inquiry through a narrative medium when it cannot be communicated in a purely technical one. Second, they illustrate the ideals of scientific inquiry by paying homage to great scientists; the story of Galileo, for example, emphasizes the ideal that empirical evidence should trump accepted dogma.

Thus, scientific mythology is a general framework by which science can be understood, even by non-scientists––while most people do not understand Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “Einstein” is still a colloquial slang for “an intelligent person” and exists in the cultural imagination as a sort of “ideal scientist.” I do not exclude the possibility that other factors contribute to the understanding of science, but I will claim that scientific mythology is substantial––and that, by an examination of scientific mythology, we can explicate some of the roots of perceptual prejudice against women in science. For such an analysis, we need to look to concrete historical evidence.

One of the most famous discoveries in the history of science was the double-helix structure of DNA; as the blueprint of all life, knowledge of the structure of DNA has allowed scientists to sequence the human genome, learn more about our evolutionary origins, research cures for genetic diseases, and more. It is not an exaggeration to say that this discovery laid the foundations for all of modern molecular biology. The two scientists credited with this discovery are James Watson and Francis Crick; along with Maurice Wilkins, they were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their contributions, and Watson and Crick went on to enormously successful careers.

What is often left out of this story is that a central piece of evidence that led to Watson and Crick’s momentous paper was a high-resolution X-ray diffraction image––indeed, as Watson and Crick had no experimental evidence of their own, they relied mostly on abstract trial and error in their attempts to work out the structure of DNA. Thus, this image was not their own––it was obtained by Rosalind Franklin, who was also independently employed at King’s College as an X-ray diffraction specialist working on the structure of DNA. To clarify, the role of an Xray diffraction specialist was not a simple or purely technical one in Franklin’s time; as a relatively new field, it required extensive scientific knowledge and first-hand theoretical expertise in addition to technical proficiency. It would be a mistake to think of Franklin’s work as a mere picture, which could in principle be taken by anyone else––she was working on the frontiers of scientific inquiry, and she was one of the best in a cutting-edge field.

Furthermore, Franklin did not initially share this image with Watson and Crick–– it was shown to them without her knowledge by her antipathetic colleague Maurice Wilkins. Franklin had already drafted a paper on her own data and findings, and when she was shown Watson and Crick’s model she graciously offered it as a supporting paper alongside theirs––unaware that they had used her data to come to their conclusions. She was not even offered co-authorship in their paper, and all the credit she received was a vague footnote––despite the fact that, by Watson and Crick’s own admission, their own conclusions “would have been most unlikely” without her data (Des Jardins 188). She was only mentioned in a passing aside in their Nobel Prize lecture (“Maurice F. Wilkins,” The Nobel Foundation). But perhaps most insulting was that (by Crick’s own admission) Franklin was on the verge of working out the structure of DNA on her own––she had privately hypothesized the helical structure well before Watson and Crick, and analysis of her research notebooks confirms this (Des Jardins 188-190). Had she been given a few more weeks––or even published the draft of her paper before Watson and Crick’s announcement––the world would remember Rosalind Franklin as a (if not the) genius behind the discovery of the structure of DNA.

But for our purposes, we must also understand how she was excluded; perhaps none are more informative on this front than one who would have been best able to validate her contributions: James Watson. In his autobiographical account of the discovery of the double helix, it is clear that Watson perceived Franklin in a negative light: despite her qualifications as a scientist, he sizes her up sexually in his initial description:

By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. (Watson 17)

and he refers to Franklin by the diminutive “Rosy”––clear indications that he did not consider her as a peer (“Rosy, as we called her from a distance” (Watson 16, my emphasis)). He eventually concludes:

Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously prefer-

able because….it would be difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. (17)

Franklin, if it is not already clear, was a first-rate scientist and had established a reputation as one of the best in her field––Watson’s obvious implication that she should be submissive to the male intellectuals in her lab is already clear evidence that he perceived her as less of a scientist. In the epilogue, Watson finally admits that he “realiz[ed] years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking,”  but by this time it is clear that the damage is already done–– Franklin has already been summarily dismissed from the narrative, at least insofar as she deserved recognition for her scientific accomplishments (226).[1]

What implications does Franklin’s story have with respect to scientific mythology? Clearly, this marginalization of Franklin’s accomplishments and contributions is an epistemic injustice––insofar as Franklin has been excluded from the annals of scientific mythology, she has been denied standing and recognition as one of the most brilliant knowers in the history of the human race. And unfortunately, Franklin’s exclusion from scientific mythology is not unique. Lise Meitner, a physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn, is another victim of epistemic injustice––she was written off as Hahn’s assistant, while Hahn walked away with the Nobel Prize in Physics (Des Jardins, 160-161).  And while racism also factored into this exclusion initially (Meitner and Otto’s discovery took place while Hahn was living in Nazi Germany and Meitner was forced to flee the country), the fact that this injustice was not rectified after the war suggests that her exclusion has deeper roots. In fact, many women who made substantial contributions to science have been marginalized in status: take, for example, Emma Noether––she proved some of the most beautiful and important theorems in theoretical physics, but was relegated to an unpaid appointment before she was forced to flee Germany (Des Jardins 168).

I have limited the analysis to these historical figures, but many more women have made substantial contributions to the enterprise of science and deserve recognition as scientists: Ada Lovelace, who wrote what some consider to be the first computer program; Hypatia, an ancient Greek astronomer and philosopher; Sophie Germaine, who made significant contributions to number theory; and more. We must also recall that these women are the ones who have managed to stand out despite the odds stacked against them––it is likely that the majority of female scientists have been dismissed by history more completely than those named above, and that even more women have been prevented from fulfilling their potentials. It would, of course, be impossible to exhaustively catalogue all women who have been excluded from scientific mythology; as the informal record of scientific history, scientific mythology itself has likely ensured that such a task is impossible. It will suffice to understand that scientific mythology is gendered––specifically, as the history of male science, of male scientists, and of male accomplishment.

This might seem an exaggeration––after all, a few female figures (e.g., Marie Curie) are certainly recognizable to most people as scientists, and I acknowledge that a few exceptions exist. But my point is not that female scientists have never received recognition or commendation; indeed, no system of oppression is without a few occasional exceptions. My point is that deserving female scientists have been disproportionately and systematically excluded from receiving recognition or homage within scientific mythology because of their gender, even if this exclusion was not always maliciously intentional.

What can be said of scientific mythology, and of how is it related to the problem of sexism in science? Because scientific mythology as a perception of science inevitably factors into perceptual evaluations of scientific capacities, gendered scientific mythology will give rise to gendered perceptual evaluations––specifically, a perception of science as an implicitly masculine discipline. More precisely, an overwhelmingly male cast of scientific role models will only enforce the perception of the scientist as a role most appropriate to men.

In her book Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair, Hilde Lindemann Nelson gives us an account of how identities are narratively constructed: according to Lindemann, our culture provides us with a set of master narratives which prescribe a particular identity; these narratives, by virtue of their selective and interpretive depiction of a particular community, “[embody] an understanding” of what it means to be a member of that community (15). Scientific mythology is subset of these master narratives, and ultimately one which paints a picture of the role of scientist as male––and this portrayal can unjustly constrain the agency and identity of female scientists. The way in which gendered master narratives can influence perception and constrain agency most apparent by means of a short story:

A father and his young son are in a terrible car collision, where the father is killed on impact and the son is taken to the hospital in critical condition. He is rushed into surgery and, upon seeing the young boy’s face, the surgeon gasps and says, “I can’t operate on this boy––he is my son!”

Consider the trajectory of the narrative: the story opens with a recognizable situation, leading the reader along an expected flow of events. If we presume that the reader has as a “default” assumption that the role of the surgeon is a male role––as I did the first time I heard this story––the story then slams the reader’s narrative expectation of a male surgeon into an apparent paradox: how could the boy’s father be the surgeon if he was just killed in the accident? Of course, the realization and resolution of this paradox follows a split second later––the surgeon is the boy’s mother (or father, if we want to expose heteronormative prejudices––but let us stay on target). It is stories such as this one which make explicit our implicit assumptions of gender roles; in the context of science, gendered scientific mythology will determine our understanding of the role of scientist as a male role. Gendered scientific mythology therefore underlies the problem of sexism in science by implicitly determining a male-privileged evaluation of scientific capabilities, at least insofar as these capabilities are given as intrinsic to the discipline. And, as the story suggests, this is not an unusual phenomenon: even today, many gendered roles exert an implicit influence over our perceptions of male and female capacities––take, for example, the assumption that men are naturally better suited for military service, or the assumption that women are naturally better caretakers of children. As we have already established, these gendered assumptions restrict the agency of female scientists by negatively altering perceptions of their abilities, which further denies them opportunities and equal status.

Lindemann prescribes the practice of telling counterstories––stories that “root out the master narratives in the tissue of stories that constitute an oppressive identity and replace them with stories that depict the person as morally worthy” ––to mitigate and hopefully dissolve the unjust restriction on an oppressed group’s agency (150). Thus, to solve the problem of gendered scientific mythology, we can attempt to develop new stories that have the potential to be “culturally digestible and widely circulated”  enough to correct our skewed perception of female scientists––only then will epistemic justice for female scientists be possible (151).

But science, as a historical discipline, seems to present us with a problem. Though certain master narratives regarding science have no historical referent––for example, popular science fiction tropes––scientific mythology purports to be a historical record (regardless of whether it is, in fact, an accurate record). And as we cannot actually alter the past so that a more equal proportion of women were allowed to participate in science, some attempts to tell counterstories opposing the oppressive narrative of scientific mythology might appear to be an act of historical revisionism––which, of course, would raise a slew of protest. The possibility of telling counterstories, as well as a clearer elucidation of the possible objections, will be more closely examined in the final section.

iii. Socially responsible science

If gendered scientific mythology perpetuates the perceptual prejudice that we are concerned with, it is clear that we must transform scientific mythology. But as a largely unofficial phenomenon, scientific mythology has no standardized corpus or canon; even where it includes elements of official history, these elements are emphasized or marginalized according to their conformity to or divergence from the already-prejudiced master narratives. Thus, its content exists largely in the cultural imagination. This does not mean we cannot take steps to alter it, but the question arises: who is called to respond––and, perhaps more important, in what capacity? While individuals as individuals can certainly contribute by correcting specific instances of epistemic injustice, such contributions operate only at the scale of the individual; and, as the nature of the prejudice we wish to eradicate is perceptual, it would be unwise to count on a mass realization of a largely subconscious phenomenon. To make significant strides towards the transformation of a cultural phenomenon such as scientific mythology, we must speak in a more distinctive voice. Thus, those who can speak with cultural authority on science––namely, scientists and science educators––are the ones primarily responsible for the transformation of scientific mythology.

But, a scientist might protest, the role of a scientist is not a role of an activist; science, as a theoretical enterprise, is divorced from the concerns of science as a social institution. Certainly, the scientist as an individual is called to respond to sexism in the social realm, but this only implies an obligation to combat individual instances of prejudice when they arise. If science, as a discipline, strives for objectivity in this manner, then scientists have no special responsibility to take an active role in reshaping scientific mythology in the way that they practice and communicate about science. A science educator might make a similar claim––that while educators as individuals are called to alleviate individual instances of prejudice within their communities, science education consists merely in teaching the tools and principles of scientific inquiry and not in prescribing a particular set of values by which to use these tools. Thus, it would be unfair to criticize a scientist or science educator for not actively promoting an agenda of gender equality as a scientific value, for the social concerns of gender equality are distinct from the theoretical essentials of science in its purest form.

Obviously, the theoretical-social distinction underlies this objection; here, science proper is conceived as free of all social and political values––even egalitarian values. By this conception of the value-free ideal of science, science seeks objective truth alone; it is not the business of scientists to decide beforehand what kind of social values science should endeavor to support, for the facts will speak for themselves. To counter this conception of science––and hence undercut this objection––we need a more rigorous treatment of the argument that was suggested in the first section.

Let us consider a scenario. I might prove, by strict experimental methods, a totally random fact: let us imagine (purely for the sake of argument), that on average the proportion of the distance between one’s belly button and the center of one’s sternum to the distance between one’s eyes is significantly larger in men than in women. Of course, this sounds ridiculous––I intentionally made it so––but the fact remains: it is a valid, falsifiable scientific hypothesis that, however silly, has the potential to be just as “true” as any other logically coherent hypothesis. Indeed, its silliness is precisely the point: for if we take ideal scientific practice to be a search for truth without reference to social values, then this silly hypothesis must be granted equal status alongside the greatest experimental findings of science. In other words, we would have to consider it an achievement on par with Millikan’s measurement of the charge of an electron and the discovery of the atomic nucleus, for each of these experimental findings confirm their respective hypotheses to precisely the same extent and, if truth is our only metric of valuation, they are literally indistinct from a purely epistemic point of view. But this is obviously ludicrous.

Why do we clearly see that the hypothesis that “men have a higher belly-buttonto-sternum/eye-to-eye ratio than women” is ridiculous, while we recognize other experimental achievements as worthy? Because the former hypothesis is absolutely useless, while the latter are useful for a particular purpose. In other words, science does not merely pursue truth: even as a purely theoretical enterprise, science only pursues these truths insofar as they help us build a coherent and stable picture of the world. Thus, hypotheses are subject to various valuations by scientists even as they practice science in its most purely theoretical form, and it is not the case that science is directed by values only as a social institution; as the number of possible scientific hypotheses is infinite, values must guide our scientific inquiry to seek those that are worthy of our examination. Value-free science is an untenable ideal, and the theoretical-social distinction cannot be maintained. Thus, science cannot escape social implication; every scientific inquiry is undertaken with an implicit understanding of which hypotheses would, if confirmed, be valuable knowledge and which would be useless. And as the question of whether or not a fact is useful depends the picture of the world one is attempting render coherent and stable, this distinction is always implicitly influenced by the social values inherent in that world-picture.

For example: if we take this analysis further and consider the fact that there have been many attempts to prove that men are more suited for scientific inquiry than women, then this suggests that there is evidence of a sexist bias from the fact that they pursued this line of inquiry alone––regardless of whether or not the hypothesis is true. For the fact that scientists have attempted to prove this hypothesis indicates that they believed it would contribute to a coherent and useful picture of the world and that they sought to explain the disproportionate underrepresentation of women in science. But this explanation is also a justification; in other words, a conscientious scientist directed by egalitarian values would not be interested in this hypothesis––even if true––because a conscientious scientist would realize that this hypothesis could only be applied practically to evaluate the scientific capacities of specific women who are not necessarily representative of the “average” woman described in the hypothesis. Thus, any practical application of this hypothesis will inevitably stereotype women, regardless of their individual merits––and this inevitably sexist utility, intentional or unintentional, is implicitly present in the evaluation of the hypothesis as worthy of pursuit.

If science is bound to implicitly represent social values, what is our new ideal of science? Janet Kourany, in her book Philosophy of Science after Feminism, offers the paradigm of Socially Responsible Science (henceforth, SRS): an ideal of science that is (among other things) consciously committed to egalitarian social values, and directs its research accordingly towards world-pictures which are consistent with these values (68). Within the paradigm of SRS, the practice of scientific inquiry cannot be divorced from the ethical responsibility to embody egalitarian values–– and therefore, that scientists and science educators share this ethical responsibility.

Of course, one might object that this ideal of SRS is disastrously flawed: that, instead of sacrificing social values for epistemic values (as was the case with valuefree science), SRS sacrifices epistemic values for social values. In the example above, I pointed out that a conscientious scientist working under the paradigm of egalitarian social values would not pursue the question of, “on average, are women less scientifically capable than men?”; clearly, this represents an obstacle to the investigation of a particular knowledge claim, and one might argue that this disqualification amounts to the destruction of science’s ideal of objectivity. But Kourany points out that SRS does not, in principle, prevent this hypothesis from becoming knowledge; it merely requires that we frame our investigations negatively––that is, in a manner that seeks to explain the low proportion of women in science first of all and as far as possible in terms of sociological factors (72). If these sociological factors prove incapable of explaining the low proportion of women in science, we would then know by exclusion that our original hypothesis is true; however, by forbidding straightforward stereotype confirmation and requiring the investigation of alternative explanations, SRS would prevent stereotypes from introducing confirmation bias––and would likely be more objective.

But as we have admitted that SRS prevents a straightforward investigation of stereotypes, one might further object that this indirectness will render SRS inefficient. But indirectness and inefficiency are not equivalent: when we call a process inefficient, it is because we already have an understanding of the specific result of the concrete process in question. In other words, the accusation of inefficiency is only possible from a meta-view of the situation in which we assume knowledge of the eventual results. If we imagine that a stereotype hypothesis is true, then it is certainly less efficient to investigate it by the indirect SRS method––but in this exercise of “if we imagine,” we (philosophers) are engaged in a thought-experiment which makes assumptions unavailable to a scientist who is engaged in an actual investigation. If science claims to be objective, it cannot assume its conclusions; thus, no concrete program of scientific investigation can be called inefficient (in the structural sense) until it is already finished. As Kourany points out, neither SRS nor non-SRS can be guaranteed to be efficient (73).

Thus, SRS does not dismiss those epistemic values which gave the ideal of valuefree science its authority––it merely recognizes that we cannot exclude social values from our account of science. Thus, this breakdown of the theoretical-social distinction in SRS does not relieve those engaged in science from the ethical responsibilities implied by SRS. With this in mind, we now return to our central concern: How can we––especially scientists and science educators––fulfill our ethical obligations and reinscribe women into the scientific mythology of our age and ages past?

iv. Towards epistemic justice for female scientists

The problem at hand, as we have enumerated it, is testimonial injustice to female scientists in the form of a perceptual prejudice; specifically, we are concerned with the perpetuation of this prejudice by scientific mythology. To combat the gendered master narratives in scientific mythology, I will propose two general types of counterstories and defend them from objections.

The most obvious solution is simply to begin telling the stories of female scientists––but this is not as simple as it sounds. As sexism in general has historically barred women from receiving scientific training, there are not many historical female scientists––and, where female scientists managed to establish themselves, sexism has ensured that their stories have been marginalized or unrecorded. Thus, as a matter of the official historical record we simply cannot deny that the vast majority of scientific history records are of male science. We cannot, for example, retroactively enroll women from the 1800s into the universities and royal societies of the era. Certainly there are a few female scientists whose historical footprint is large enough to tell some stories––Rosalind Franklin, for example, if we could clear away all the negative stereotyping laid over her legacy––but most have simply not been allowed to speak to us through the ages. But will these relatively few stories be enough to solve the problem of gendered scientific mythology? Will it be sufficient to ensure that we emphasize women’s contributions where they have been made?

To understand why a shift in emphasis is not sufficient, we must recall that scientific mythology deals in stories. Our current stories about women scientists are only ‘stories’ in a primitive sense of the word; they describe sequences of events, but they do so in a manner that is more like a collection of facts. To stick in the cultural imagination—and, hence, to become a lasting (and effective) part of scientific mythology—stories cannot exist as isolated entities, but must cohere in an overarching narrative; where our current stories are not maturely developed, we must flesh them out and transform them from a mere factual acknowledgement (“woman scientist X discovered Y by using process Z”) into a narrative that actively seeks embody values. Thus, we cannot merely emphasize the facts that we already have; in scientific mythology, the way we tell stories is intimately linked to the content of the stories themselves.

Thus, if stories composed merely of historical data are insufficient, there is only one remaining possibility: we must make up stories of our own. An example:

Lise Meitner was working with Otto Hahn on the problem of some baffling experimental data: in their attempt to create an atom larger than uranium by bombarding a uranium nucleus with neutrons, their experiment seemed to be contaminated with smaller atoms––and no matter how carefully Hahn performed the experiments, the error seemed to persist. While pondering this problem on a hike through Sweden’s snowy forests, Meitner spied a droplet of water collide with another mid-air; the now-larger droplet trembled as it fell and split once more. Suddenly, Meitner, inspired by this simple droplet, seized upon the answer: the unstable uranium atom was like a large, unstable droplet of water; by bombarding it with neutrons, they had caused it to break apart. She had split the atom; she had discovered nuclear fission.[2]

There is no historical evidence that Meitner went on a walk, or that her discovery was inspired in this way. But it lends a richer narrative to the plain fact of her discovery, and makes it memorable: it gives us a narrative understanding of Meitner’s accomplishments, and makes them intelligible even to those without an extensive background in nuclear physics. And insofar as it is culturally digestible, it has the potential to enter into the cultural imagination––all that is required is the cultural authority of scientists and science educators to give this story weight (and, perhaps, a more compelling formulation––I am not a writer of fiction, and I am sure that others could tell stories more skillfully than me).

Of course, this story is untrue––and, similarly, that any other stories we make up will be untrue (or at least largely unsubstantiated). Thus, one might object that even though scientific inquiry should be directed by egalitarian values, we shouldn’t be making things up to support these values––for if we are willing to do that, why bother with the scientific process? If we are willing to make things up, why stop with anecdotes about female scientists––we could simply invent any set of facts which conform to our egalitarian values dispose with the scientific method altogether. If a science educator were to tell these stories, would it not contradict her epistemic values of objectivity and truth?

There are two replies to this objection. First, these stories, while untrue, are no more untrue than other popular anecdotes: take, for example, the story that Newton’s inspiration for the Law of Universal Gravitation came when an apple that fell on his head. The story of Newton and the apple does not undermine the process of scientific inquiry, so we have no reason to believe that these other anecdotes will. Second, we do not have to assert the truth of these stories––it is enough that they exist in the cultural imagination. This is because scientific mythology, even when it purports to be an accurate historical record of science, is in fact only the cultural imagination and perception of this history; these stories can function even if we all know they are false in terms of historical details. Thus, nobody is obligated to contradict their epistemic values by asserting that these stories are true––but we should recognize that we have an obligation to start telling them.

If we can fabricate anecdotes to alter the unofficial “histories” of scientific mythology, what can be done about the official histories? For even when female scientists have managed to leave their mark on history, this mark is often been passed over or marginalized. How can we move towards epistemic justice for these individuals? The most straightforward course of action is to retroactively recognize their accomplishments in the official records of scientific achievement––for example, the Nobel Foundation could officially award Franklin the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This would certainly be a significant movement towards epistemic justice for Franklin as a knower.

However, there are several obstacles. In Franklin’s case, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation state that “Work produced by a person since deceased shall not be considered for an award” (“Statutes of the Nobel Foundation,” The Nobel Foundation); unfortunately, Franklin died of ovarian cancer even before the prize was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins (Des Jardins 190). Further, the statutes state that “In no case may a prize amount be divided between more than three persons”— thus, the fact that the prize has already been granted to the maximum three would prevent the Foundation from bestowing an award on her. Indeed, any institutional award for scientific accomplishment will have statutes and rules by which the recipients are chosen, and retroactivity would be a violation of those statutes. However, the fact that the statutes of Nobel Foundation prevent any award from being posthumously bestowed is hardly intrinsic to the purpose of the award: that is, to recognize “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine” for the year in question. For if scientists have an ethical responsibility to actively work towards egalitarian values, a status quo which monumentalizes historical instances of inegalitarian discrimination must be recognized and changed. It would not even necessitate a violation of the statues generally, for provisions exist for the amendment of the statutes. Of course, these official recognitions are not a matter of justice for the historical situation––no amount of official recognition will undo the fact that female scientists have long been historically marginalized. But insofar as recognition delivers epistemic justice for scientists such as Franklin, it would both acknowledge the historical reality of sexism in science and herald a new conviction to work towards epistemic justice for female scientists––not only with respect to scientific mythology, but generally as well.

v. Conclusion

I should note that while this analysis was specifically directed the way in which women have been excluded from scientific mythology, similar analyses could be done regarding other historically disenfranchised groups––as well as other institutional mythologies, such as philosophy.

Of course, no complex philosophical insight is needed to realize the solutions I have prescribed––in this instance, the problem of sexism is challenging primarily because it is unarticulated or hidden. I hope that this analysis of perceptual prejudice has laid adequate groundwork for insight into the explication and amelioration of this sexism, at least with respect to scientific mythology. But I have no delusions of grandeur––I do not imagine that I can solve these historically tenacious problems in a short essay. I only hope that if we learn to take care with the stories we tell, we can better orient ourselves towards equality.

Works cited

Bodanis, David. Einstein’s Big Idea. Directed by Gary Johnstone. NOVA, 2005.


Des Jardins, Julie. The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. Feminist Press, 2010.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kourany, Janet A. Philosophy of Science After Feminism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lindemann Nelson, Hilde. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Ithaca: Cornell, 2001.

Moss-Racusin, Corrine A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman. “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America 109 (2012): 41. Accessed May 14, 2013. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109.

Nobel Foundation, The. “Maurice F. Wilkins—Nobel Lecture.” Accessed July 13, 2013. <>.

Nobel Foundation, The. “Statutes of the Nobel Foundation.” Aaccessed July 20, 2013. <>.

Watson, James. The Double Helix. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

[1] . ,WLVQRWXQUHDVRQDEOHWRVSHFXODWHWKDW:DWVRQZDVSUHVVXUHGWRLQVHUWWKLVTXDOLѹHUE\KLV publisher—clearly, the conciliatory attitude displayed here is not consistent with the rest of the book.  In any case, this is Watson’s retrospective opinion; we still know that he did not hold this opinion while working with Franklin.

[2] . This story, including most of the imagery, was inspired by a scene from NOVA’s docudrama Einstein’s Big Idea.

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