Interrogating how gender, race, sexuality, and transnational issues complexly intersect with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is not a new project for feminists. Yet each of the recent works reviewed here offer productive, interdisciplinary additions to the intricate landscape of these intersections, presenting valuable perspectives on the mutually transformative links between gender-based inquiry and STEM issues that lie at the heart of feminist science studies.
Jill M. Bystydzienski and Sharon R. Bird’s Removing Barriers: Women in Academic Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a particularly useful and comprehensive collection that examines the persistence and seeming intractability of the under-representation of women in academic STEM areas. What makes this collection especially effective is the careful and convincing theoretical perspective by which it is informed. At the very center of Bystydzienski and Bird’s approach is the quite explicit rejection of more traditional approaches to understanding and “fixing” the problem of the underrepresentation of women in academic STEM areas. Specifically, the authors refuse to accept what they describe as “interventions that construe women as ‘the problem’ in need of change” and which primarily focus on helping individual women adjust to doing science or acquiring skills they appear to lack (4). Similarly, the editors challenge the simplicity of the popular “pipeline” theory, noting that while the image of women progressively falling away from STEM careers is an apt one, the leaky pipeline model also fails to critique adequately the deeply masculinist cultural and structural barriers that are fundamentally embedded in science and engineering fields.
This clear-headed approach to the problems of women and STEM success/retention allows the seventeen essays in this collection to grapple effectively with multifaceted levels of inquiry and analysis while avoiding any of the randomness or disjuncture that often plague such distinctly ambitious projects. Bystydzienski and Bird divide the work into four sections: historical issues concerning women in STEM, institutional and cultural barriers, feminist science studies, and ideas for remedies and change. The first section features essays by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, who analyzes historical patterns concerning gender, science, and technology in the twentieth-century United States, and Amy Sue Bix, who specifically addresses the gendered history of engineering (chapters one and two, respectively). These two essays provide a valuable framework for the work that follows—work that often returns to the historical frame the better to explain the persistent exclusion of women in STEM fields.
Section two foregrounds issues of race and the particular barriers faced by women of color. This section features Sally Hanson’s study of issues faced by African American women in science fields (chapter six) and Josephine Beoku-Betts’ discussion of issues encountered by African women who travel to “the West” (specifically the United States, Canada or Europe) to continue or complete STEM graduate work (chapter seven). Cogent analyses of the configurations and stubborn tenacity of cultural and structural barriers—lack of practical and abstract support, effective and ineffective pedagogical approaches, overt and covert discrimination, constricted access to resources, and limited opportunities for collaboration in research and grant-writing—make this section relevant to all feminist educators attempting to address the under-representation of women of color in STEM fields. Especially useful in this context is Sue V. Rosser’s “Using POWRE to ADVANCE: Institutional Barriers Identified by Women Scientists and Engineers” (chapter three) which usefully outlays the specific obstacles most frequently faced by women in STEM. Molly J. Dingle’s chapter on the effects of the gendered atmosphere of the college science classroom and its subsequent effects on the self-perceptions of both female and male students is quite illuminating, as well (chapter eight).
Section three moves the collection towards a direct engagement with “science content” in order to reveal the assumptions and biases that permeate the methodologies of doing science. Of course, feminists interested in science studies and/or STEM-related issues have been dismantling the idea of scientific objectivity and debunking science as a “value free” enterprise for decades. This section offers excellent examples of precisely how the critique of supposed neutrality sheds light on the particular challenges faced women by in STEM. Carla Fehr, for example, points out the limitations of scientific reductionism as a constrictive...