Feminism, Science Commingle


At the end of J-term, BiHall’s Great Hall was transformed for a day into a gallery housing an art show that brought together science, feminism and art. Co-organizers Mikayla Hyman ’20 and Mika Morton ’19 set up an open square of large display boards and invited students to peruse the art pieces, which ranged from paintings to collages to poetry.

“We’re in BiHall because we wanted to engage with the space where science majors are,” Hyman said. “The point of this is to really engage in conversation and raise awareness about the importance of feminist science.”

One of the most prominent pieces in the exhibit was a painting of a naked female body, designed to appear as if from the perspective of a woman looking down at herself. When the viewer looks at the painting, it was as if he or she was looking down at his or her own breasts and bulging stomach.
“A lot of the guys who have come to the exhibit haven’t recognized what the painting is of” Morton said. “I think they’re just not used to looking at a female body from that perspective.”

Hyman and Morton were inspired to organize the art show by an assignment in their organic chemistry class. The assignment was to pick a chemical compound and present it to the class in some creative way. A classmate created a watercolor painting of a molecule as a female form. Both Hyman and Morton were struck by the beauty of the painting, as well as the blend of disciplines.
By bringing science and feminism together in an art show, Morton and Hyman hoped to start conversations and to show viewers how much either discipline could benefit from the other.

“Feminism is about taking the time to understand, respect and value other points of view, especially underrepresented ones,” Hyman said. “Science is all about learning new information through a rigorous and highly reliable process. I think that when trying to learn new things, more perspectives contributing to an answer can only lead to a more universally correct truth. Feminist science is responsible science.”

“Feminism is important when you’re doing your science and thinking about how you phrase your questions, who your research team is, and whom you are researching,” Morton said.

Gender bias plays a huge role in how we think about and conduct science. It affects the language we use – Morton recalls a freshman year biology textbook that referred to sperm as “stripped down speedsters,” whereas eggs were described as passive support systems. It affects how we approach diseases – considered a disease of men, Coronary Heart Disease has been understudied, underdiagnosed, and undertreated in women even though the mortality rate is greater for women than for men. And it affects how we conduct experiments.

In biomedical research and preclinical trials, researchers use animals for their experiments. These animals, however, are overwhelmingly male. A University of California, Berkeley analysis of published research found gender bias in eight out of ten scientific disciplines.

The biggest offender was neuroscience, which had 5.5 single-sex studies of male animals for every 1 single-sex study of female animals. Traditionally scientists have used male animals over female animals to avoid complications from variability due to reproductive cycles and hormonal fluctuations. There is, however, research indicating that variability is not significantly greater in females as compared to males.

Some scientists believe that findings in males can be generalized to females. Sex differences, however, have real effects. For example, researchers have demonstrated that female rodents process pain through different immune cells than male rodents. This may affect how women versus men respond to pain medication.

Using male animals has meant that when drugs hit the market searchers know much more about the drug’s effect on men than on women.