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Women in STEM: Is Ambika Kamath and Melina Packer’s New Feminist Curriculum Worthwhile?

Lily Greenspoon

Arts & Culture Co-Editor

Via ScienceNews

Women in STEM; we love using this phrase to romanticize and legitimize women’s roles in the science field. Despite my ambivalence towards this phrase, I am, by definition, a woman in STEM, looking to pursue higher education in engineering. Being a woman in STEM – and routinely patted on the back by my proud family and peers for being so – I have become aware of the lack of women in the archives of science. Specifically, the absence of women in engineering and its attribution to sexism as well as the belief that women have no place in such an objective and emotionless field.

Thus, women’s involvement in engineering, let alone in any science field, is something relatively new. According to Engineers Canada’s annual report of 2020, females represent 23.4% of all students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs, an increase of approximately 6% since 2010. Beyond women deserving equal opportunities, there is a societal and scientific benefit associated with a gender-diverse perspective, a notion explored by scientists Ambika Kamath and Melina Packer.

Historically, science is believed to be objective; scientific discoveries are first hypothesized, then tested, analyzed, and finally, proven. The gray area lies in the analysis portion. Although we have minimized bias through techniques such as blind or double-blind experiments which ensure that the test subjects and/or researchers are not affected by subconscious expectations in today’s day in age, there are still ways to go.

This leads us to the role of feminism in scientific inquiry. Kamath and Packer, scientists studying biology and animal behaviour, are responsible for a new curriculum which emphasizes the importance of looking at scientific discoveries through a feminist lens.

But, what do Kamath and Packer mean by a feminist lens? Feminism is a buzzword and has gained a negative connotation in the media. That being the case, many avoid using the word at all, if they wish to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, Kamath and Packer use it proudly. Their method of teaching is the following: examining past theories, pinpointing biases present, and scraping the theory all together, if necessary.

For instance, applying their approach to Bateman’s 1948 principle serves to dismantle the “biological myth of promiscuous males and sexually coy females,” an idea coined by Tang-Martínez, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

For context, according to ScienceNews, Bateman’s principle states that “male animals should be expected to pursue as many mates as possible while female animals should not, because males produce millions of sperm while females produce comparatively few eggs.”

My first thought when reading this was that this principle is almost humorous in its not-so-subtle representation of society’s belief that women should not be sexually active with more than one partner for fear of being slut-shamed. Sure enough, Bateman’s principle not only reflects current society, but it reflects the period in which it was theorized, the Victorian Era; it was believed that women were to engage in sexual activity purely for male gratification and that they must abstain from any sort of sexual pleasure.

Kamath would ensue in her critical analysis of this principle by focusing on modern researchers’ inability to replicate Bateman’s findings. This solidifies the parallel between animal behaviour and human behaviour as no coincidence and demonstrates how social beliefs influence scientific observations and vice versa.

Now, you may ask, what is the relevance of the dismantlement of some old theory? Why do we care?

Firstly, challenging inaccurate theories is not just an issue of the past; it has real-world implications. According to the Journal of the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences, studies as of 2014 pertaining to biological proofs of the innate differences in male and female nature are in the process of being debunked. Our society is continuously evolving. Ergo, we should never stop asking questions. We should never stop thinking critically.

Secondly, we need to be aware of how biases in scientific research can be used to further personal agendas, justify anti-human rights movements, and perpetuate all kinds of discrimination. Amidst the anti-trans movements in Canada, people are grasping for scientific proof to fuel their arguments claiming that gender-affirming health-care practices are damaging to the youth. This is reminiscent of polygenism, a scientific claim that supported white supremacist beliefs by explaining racial differences through scientific theory. In other words, in a world consumed by misinformation, “it doesn’t help if scientists are reinforcing those same kinds of assumptions,” even unintentionally, says Packer.

All this to say, Kamath and Packer’s new curriculum is in fact worthwhile. These women are taking a risk, knowing that what they say may not be taken seriously by others in their field. This is because, as long as they still represent a minority, women in STEM will continue to face much aversion, whether it be in the engineering, biological, or medical field. That said, let’s be open-minded, and listen to what women in STEM have to say.



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