Ally or oppressor? Exploring science through feminist lenses

Prof Gita Chadha and Prof Hiyaa Ghosh of NCBS had an in-depth discussion on ‘feminist perspectives in science’ at an event conducted around the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

February 20, 2024 09:00 am | Updated 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Radhika Timbadia, founder of Champaca bookstores and moderator of the discussion, Prof Hiyaa Ghosh and Prof Gita Chadha (from left).

Radhika Timbadia, founder of Champaca bookstores and moderator of the discussion, Prof Hiyaa Ghosh and Prof Gita Chadha (from left).

Is science an ally of feminist movements? Or has it been, absorbing the biases of the practitioners, oppressive towards women and other marginalised genders?

“It’s a complex relationship,” says Prof Gita Chadha, Obaid Siddiqui Chair in History and Culture of Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru.

“In feminist science studies, there are many versions of how we relate to science. Women’s movement continues to think of science as an ally, but we also realise it can be extremely problematic and oppressive,” she said.

Prof Chadha was in conversation with Prof Hiyaa Ghosh, neuroscientist at NCBS, on “Feminist Perspectives in Science.” The event was organised by NCBS and Champaca bookstore in connection with the International Day of Women and Girls in Science that fell on 11 February.

History of feminist science studies

Feminist science studies emerged in the mid-1980s as a strong critique to the professional practice of science that was until then largely carried out from a male point of view. While science, or practitioners of it, often claim to be neutral and objective, history says otherwise. Different streams of sciences have more than often mirrored the cultural and social biases of the practitioners and legitimised social stereotypes around gender.

“Women, somewhere along their struggles for equity and equality, realised that at the bottom line, there is a notion that the inequality is justified biologically, a belief that there is a biological basis to gender differences, and in extension to patriarchy sometimes. I think that was perhaps why feminists felt the necessity and urgency to engage with science,” Prof Chadha said.

Delving into the history of perceptions of science and shifts in it, prof Chadha noted that while science has been considered the institution of modernity and progress, in the post-World War period, perceptions – different from earlier – started emerging.

“Sociologists have given a clean chit to science saying everything including politics, religion and so on has social causes, but science doesn’t.”

“But somewhere in the post-Manhattan period, a critical approach from pacifists’ perspectives began on what science is doing – is it really delivering what it promised or is it doing other things? We began to recognise that there are social determinants to science,” she said.

Manhattan project was the title given to the research and development to make nuclear weapons by the U.S. government during World War II.

Prof Chadha was in conversation with Prof Hiyaa Ghosh, neuroscientist at NCBS, on Feminist Perspectives in Science.

Prof Chadha was in conversation with Prof Hiyaa Ghosh, neuroscientist at NCBS, on Feminist Perspectives in Science.

While this was an important shift in the thinking around science, another shift happened in feminist theory.

“For feminist science studies to develop we needed to understand that gender not only shapes us as human beings of different sexes but also shapes our ways of thinking…We needed to make this shift in understanding to question the influence of gender on science and scientific knowledge,” Prof Chadha said, adding that the history of feminist science lies in the women’s movement as well as feminist theory.

While that was the case in the West mostly, in India a third thing had to happen, she noted.

“We needed to check if the Western development model needed to be questioned from a post-colonial perspective. When we started doing that feminist science studies in India could grow.”

Where are the women?

Prof Chadha noted that the field is developing in four directions, the first being the questioning of the underrepresentation of women in science. While adding that the statistics currently look good in India with women constituting 35-40% of basic sciences including undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD levels, she however put forward the important observation that the women who make it come from similar class and caste backgrounds mostly.

“Our second important question is around what has science done to construct theories about sex and gender, how they legitimised certain social stereotypes around gender.”

“The third question is how science detects nature. Historically it has been pointed out that as science was developing, so was the feminisation of nature – expressions like ‘nature obeys the law,’ referring to nature as ‘she’, the very violent language around controlling nature… Simultaneously women were also being controlled and violated. We as feminists want to understand this equation,” said Prof Chadha adding how FSS also examines the scientific method.

Indian scientists work inside a laboratory of the Research and Development Centre of Natco Pharma Ltd. in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, March 13, 2012.

Indian scientists work inside a laboratory of the Research and Development Centre of Natco Pharma Ltd. in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, March 13, 2012. | Photo Credit: MAHESH KUMAR A

Self-correcting science

Prof Hiyaa Ghosh, who was also part of the conversation, agreed that historically there have been biases, mostly unconscious ones, in science impacting the designing of the studies, selection of the cohort and inferences.

However, Prof Ghosh added that science by itself is self-correcting.

“The scientific environment and scientific interpretations over the years have been influenced by the society we live in which is biased and male-dominated. The influence of that has unconsciously affected science and scientific outcomes. However, science by itself is self-correcting.”

“It critically depends on the methodologies, technologies, number of people doing science, the strength of the advancements in the field and their implementation. So, over the years, beyond fundamental laws, things have only changed in any field of science. As science has moved, we have learned more. We have rewritten definitions and theories. This is applicable for science that we look at from a feminist perspective also,” she said, adding that science is constantly improving itself to remain objective.

Advancement in methodologies

Prof Ghosh further drove in her point with the example of how studies on the differences in the brain of men and women were earlier used to explain behavioural differences between the genders.

“If you look at a lot of these back data through the lenses of new technology – which not only do measurements again but also revisit methods of normalisation – it tells you entirely the opposite thing from the same data. What I’m trying to say is whether you are a man or woman, feminist or not, if you are a true scientist, if you are keeping up to date with the advancement of methodologies, and challenging the data itself, you are bound to see what is the truth.”

Emphasizing her belief in science’s ability to show people the truth, she also noted that there is a vast area of science where the studies happen at molecular and cellular levels and the question of gender becomes almost non-existent.

“Then there are these other areas like evolutionary biology where it is evidently there. From Charles Darwin’s time to now, it matters who is asking the question.”

Need to break silos

The speakers also emphasized the importance of integrating social science content education into the science curriculum and vice versa.

Noting that every class in sociology begins with the sociological method - the history of the discipline, the philosophical underpinnings behind each theory and paradigm and so on, Prof Chadha explained how it constantly locates the shifts in knowledge within the discipline and the origins of the discipline in a historical, social, and cultural context.

If the same could be done in science it would make a lot of difference, she said.

“It would help people in science to recognise that the disciplines and knowledge they make or teach are rooted within a social historical political context and they are changing.”

“The reverse is also important. We don’t teach enough science to social scientists. Maybe not in an instrumental way so as to pursue a career, but it should be done in a significantly intellectual way to bring the streams together… We need to move towards much more integrated teaching across the silos,” she said.

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