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New UW-Madison postdoctoral program in feminist biology is the first in the nation
Rooting out bias in research
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Allen: 'Many things that "everyone knows" about human sex differences are not scientifically accurate.'
Credit:UW-Madison

True or false? Women are more emotional than men. Boys are better than girls at math and science.

"Many things that 'everyone knows' about human sex differences are not scientifically accurate," says professor Caitilyn Allen, a plant pathologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yet, she adds, these ideas "affect individual life decisions and broader social policies. Getting the facts right leads to increased opportunities for everyone and improves the quality of science in general."

Separating fact from fiction in experimental research is one of the goals behind a new postdoctoral program in feminist biology in the UW's department of gender and women's studies. It will also train early-career scientists to avoid such biases in their own research.

The program is the first of its kind in the country. It is funded through a bequest from scientist and feminist science advocate Dr. Gertraude Wittig, who experienced gender biases firsthand when she earned a Ph.D. in biology in the 1950s.

Professor Janet Hyde, director of the UW's Center for Research on Gender and Women, will oversee the program and serve as a mentor to each postdoctoral fellow.

Hyde says that patriarchal attitudes in biology have not only excluded women from the field, but created biases that affect research. "To me, one of the best examples is the use of male-only samples, both in human and animal research, and then generalizing the findings to all members of the species," says Hyde. "It's not a good scientific practice, but it has been accepted for decades. The result is that some findings may not apply to women."

Allen says that a feminist approach is particularly important in biology: "Bias is strongest when we are studying ourselves, or organisms we assume are like ourselves."

It was a mainstream 19th-century belief, for instance, that women were less intelligent than men. "Based on this premise, scientists went looking for a scientific explanation," Allen explains. "They found that women had smaller brains than men, which seemed to explain it."

But when body size is taken into account, there's no difference in brain size between the sexes "" and scientists now know that there's no relationship between brain size and intelligence (if there were, elephants would rule the world).

"So that whole idea was wrong, for a bunch of reasons "" but it was widely accepted and used to exclude women from medical school and other opportunities," says Allen. "It seems silly now, but these were highly respected mainstream scientists, publishing in the best journals of their time."

More recently, researchers concluded that there was a biological difference between the sexes based on males performing higher than females on standardized math tests.

"They tried to find the mechanism behind this supposedly innate sex difference," Allen says. "Maybe testosterone increased math skills? Maybe male brain structure improved math reasoning? However, in the past few decades the average difference in math test scores has essentially gone away. It's unlikely that human biology changed in just a couple generations. It appears the math test score difference resulted from socialization, not hormones or brain structure."

Caroline VanSickle, the first postdoctoral fellow in the program, is currently completing her Ph.D. in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan and will begin her two-year fellowship this fall. Her research focuses on how the shape of the female pelvis -- the anatomy for childbirth -- has evolved over time.

Hyde says she hopes the new fellowship program will help researchers explore ways to recognize and avoid gender-biased science. She says biology is a good starting point, as it tends to be a more welcoming field than other scientific disciplines. "We have lots of women earning Ph.D.s," she says, "and many are interested in pursuing a feminist approach."

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