Check Your Bias: Why Women’s Studies Should Amend Its Relationship With Biology

by Marcela Muricy, November 30, 2020

Over the years, a gap has grown. As it has expanded, the women’s studies field has largely distanced itself from making connections to the field that may cause it to flourish most: biology. Either due to lack of knowledge or necessity, many articles that could have included aspects of biology to support their claim chose not to. In addition, the women’s studies field has made several claims that science is biased, and has used that to discredit certain concrete pieces of information they could be using to their own benefit. Incorporating biology into their work would further fortify their claims, increase their credibility and respectability, as well as widen their target audience towards the scientific realm. The two need not clash, but rather integrate. As it stands, the disconnect from biology may be causing the misanalyzing of certain concepts and hindering the women’s studies field to grow, despite how much more they could accomplish by amending the relationship between the two fields.

An argument that has gained plentiful traction among those in the women’s studies field is that biologists allow bias to affect their perception of research and their own field. Here’s an example: Emily Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm” critiques how scientific explanations are affected by gender roles, especially when it comes to reproductive systems. She analyzes the story of fertilization the way it is regularly told, questioning the choice of words. Eggs are said to “passively flow down the fallopian tubes,” while the sperm “go on a perilous journey” and travel actively towards the egg.1 Martin claims this personification of the germ cells gives them traits associated with women and men that coat our understanding of the reproductive system1—for instance, how the sperm travel “actively” and the eggs “await rescue.” Without the knowledge of the biological processes themselves, many wouldn’t hesitate to feel bothered by these facts, unable to reason this evidence otherwise. However, the common language in biology is to use “active” to signify energy (ATP) usage and passive to mean the lack thereof. Sperm is designed for travel, its most abundant organelle being mitochondria, so that it can reach the egg (which moves without energy) in the fallopian tubes. Excluding this, either because she chose to do so or simply wasn’t aware of the rhetoric, is harmful because it causes a devaluing and miscrediting of not only her claim, but of the biology field. This is a piece of information that biology majors learn in their freshman year of university, so anyone above that level of learning has the ability to see this flaw and the disconnect between the field of women’s studies and biology.

“The Egg and The Sperm,” published in 1996, has dominated the argument of scientific bias in the study of reproduction, but it seems many are unwilling to critique Martin and adjust her argument. Her purpose with this piece was to critique the impact that bias can have on science, which is an undeniably valid argument. Subjectivity is a myth, as all humans are impacted by their implicit bias and bound to apply that to their research. Yet, this should not be the primary example to support her claim because of its fundamental flaw, making Martin’s lack of knowledge in biology quite clear and weakening what may have otherwise been a very strong piece. In critiquing the bias in science, Martin then made her own bias evident, ultimately deflecting biologists away from the women’s studies field and furthering the divide.

This causes many people—women’s studies writers, biologists, as well as the general population—to view the two as incompatible, contradictory, and mutually exclusive. However, regularly using both lenses to analyze society can be illuminating and beneficial going forward. For instance, take a popular claim made by many feminist writers: sex (in addition to gender) is a socially constructed spectrum dependent on factors beyond just the sex chromosomes people carry. A claim such as this is baseless without the science to support it, so including concrete examples such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome can help solidify its validity. An individual with this condition, born with XY chromosomes, is phenotypically female because of the lack of androgen receptors. Androgens refer to hormones such as testosterone and DHT, essential for the expression of male traits. This individual, instead, exhibits female traits, but with no internal reproductive system.3 This serves as an incredible example that sex definitions are not so clear-cut because someone may not necessarily be ‘male’ even with XY chromosomes. This also helps explain the issues that may arise with hormone testing in sports, such as what took place with Maria José Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish Olympic hurdler with androgen insensitivity who failed the gender test. These topics can be incredibly complex to understand without a biological background, so creating this bridge between women’s studies and biology can facilitate the discourse surrounding these controversies and intricacies.

Rather than straying away from biology, then, there comes an immense benefit from embracing it and using it to solidify specific concepts and ideas. It can help strengthen feminists’ arguments while also expanding the target audience to those with a higher affinity for biology than sociology. They may also seek to critique biologists, yet they must do so with concrete research to build the discussion rather than hinder it. Once the conversation allows for biology and women’s studies to become amalgamated, the intersection between the two fields will serve to fundamentally shift the way many perceive the world towards a more accurate and educated perspective. This progress can only be achieved with the women’s studies field developing an intimate relationship with biology, using scientific evidence to refute arguments, but most importantly: checking their own bias.


References

1. Martin, E. (spring, 1991). The Egg and The Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. University of Chicago Press. Signs, Vol. 16(No. 3), 485-501. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174586

2. Notes & Videos- [1.2.1]Compare the mechanisms of active vs. passive transport. (n.d.). University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://canvas.pitt.edu/courses/63946/pages/notes-and-videos-1-dot-2-1-compare-the-mechanisms-of-active-vs-passive-transport

3. Singh, S., & Ilyayeva, S. (2020, June 24). Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542206/.

4. Martinez-Patino, M. J. (2005). Personal Account: A woman tried and tested. Sports and Medicine,366(December), 538-538. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67841-5

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