Mid-Semester Essay: Global Politics in Science

Throughout this past year, global politics have taken center stage. From the presidential campaigns of the two major political parties in the United States to the brutal killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen how politics impacts nearly every aspect of human life. Everyday, we see news articles about the gender pay gap and the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. We see the prevalence of police brutality and hate crimes against African-Americans throughout the country. I believe that it’s no different within the field of science, which is deeply rooted in both gender and racial inequalities that are often a result of a false sense of heroism and white supremacy. Both gender and racial discrepancies are a significant part of global politics in today’s society, and it’s evident how they are involved in the advancement of science both in the past and in the present.

In Naomi Oreskes’s piece, “Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science,” she discusses the ideas of “heroism” and “objectivity” in the workplace, especially in the field of science. Oreskes mentions that many women are often shielded from gaining the recognition that they may deserve because men are often seen as subjectively being more “heroic” than women, and this can lead to a sense of inequality. She states that “by emphasizing attributes associated with masculinity, heroic ideology renders the female scientist invisible” (Oreskes, 1996). Oreskes believes “heroism” is an internalized ideal within the scientific community that every scientist ultimately strives for because it helps them feel important and their discoveries valuable to the rest of society. Because this internalized ideal favors masculinity, female scientists often get overlooked.

Oreskes also states that “women’s invisibility in science might be that women tend to science in a less objective, i.e., less detached or more contextualized, manner than their male counterparts, and therefore their work is misinterpreted, undervalued, or harshly judged” (Oreskes, 1996). What this means is that women’s work in science can also be attributed to the fact that their work is “less objective” as compared to men within the same field, and this may be the cause behind the feeling of invisibility. A prime example of a female scientist not receiving the credit she deserves is that of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was an English chemist whose work on DNA changed the way scientists understood biology. Her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, showed Franklin’s image of DNA to James Watson and Francis Crick without her knowledge. Watson and Crick were then able to “deduce the correct structure” of DNA’s double helix, and they were both awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize (Lee, 2013). Franklin, on the other hand, never received her share of credit for her hard work, and all of this was because Wilkins assumed that she was an “assistant rather than [the] head of her own project” in the lab (Lee, 2013). Wilkins’s assumption shows how people within the scientific community may view women differently than their male counterparts, and this can lead to severe inequalities.

In her piece, “Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists,” author Sharon Traweek discusses the prevalence of gender roles within the field of science. She believes that these norms are ingrained into the mindsets of people, and that’s the main reason why women are not as prevalent as men in the scientific community. Traweek argues that women are often looked down upon and their perseverance and dedication to the field of science are not always appropriately recognized, and one example of this is during World War II (Traweek, 1988). In many ways, the war accelerated the advancement of science because of a country’s need to gain an advantage over its opponents. World War II was significant for scientists, especially physicists because it allowed them to gain a sense of power, especially with projects such as the atomic bomb. However, these projects were often led by male scientists instead of female scientists. When referring to these female fieldworkers, Traweek states that “if she ‘learns’ too slowly, her informants may become exasperated, impatient, or bored. It is part of the job to make social ‘mistakes,’ to note which of her actions are accepted as worthy, [and] which are treated as inappropriate” (Traweek, 1988). This shows that female scientists were not given as many chances to make errors as compared to their male counterparts, and the standards for perfection are different between the two genders.

This sense of inequality within the workplace is still prevalent to this day. In a study done in 2017, it was found that women “made up only 29% of those employed in science and engineering occupations” (Catalyst, 2020). Although women account for “over half of the college-educated workforce,” there still seems to be a sense of hesitation towards having a career in STEM fields. In addition, women in these fields earned “an estimated 80.7% of men’s annual median earnings” in 2018 (Catalyst, 2020). These statistics show that women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to working in the field of science. Not only are they discouraged from entering STEM, but they are also paid significantly less, and this illustrates the inconsistencies between men and women in the workforce.

Tema Okun’s piece, “White Supremacy Culture,” further showcases the inequalities within the field of science by describing the many concepts that encompass the culture of “white supremacy.” Okun argues that this culture is ingrained into many institutions, who often face no consequences for their actions regarding gender and racial inequalities. She also states that the white supremacy culture is prevalent in a multitude of different ways, which makes it harder to get noticed by most observers (Okun, 2001). In her piece, Okun shares several characteristics that can be used to identify white supremacy, but I believe the most important characteristic is “power hoarding.” According to Okun, power hoarding is the idea that power is seen as limited with only so much to go around (Okun, 2001). She also states that “those with power don’t see themselves as hoarding power” and that they feel “threatened” when changes are advised (Okun, 2001). This particular aspect of white supremacy was especially prevalent in the 2016 American biographical drama film, Hidden Figures.

Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African-American women working for NASA. These women, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson, faced both gender and racial inequalities in their journey of working to launch a rocket into orbit. These women were not seen as important even though they were vital for NASA’s progress, and you can once again see the discrimination that was present in the workplace. Many of the leadership roles and “harder” jobs were given to white males, showcasing a characteristic of white supremacy: power hoarding. In this film, Mary Jackson says, “every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line” (Hidden Figures, 2016). Although Jackson possessed the same credentials as every other engineer at NASA, her supervisor says there are additional requirements that need to be met. Ultimately, it’s evident that these inequalities within the workplace are prevalent and that this situation needs to be addressed.

Through the multitude of perspectives seen thus far, it’s evident that global politics are undoubtedly in play in the advancement of science. In the field of science, women are undermined because of the lack of a perceived “heroic” ability that is often seen only in men. This perception has caused many great women scientists to not receive the appropriate recognition and credit that they deserve. One example of this is Rosalind Franklin, whose work on DNA is still being taught in schools around the world. This is especially prevalent for African-American women as seen in the film,​ Hidden Figures​. The writers even went out and changed the plot to give credit to a white man even though it contradicted the real-life events that occurred. This is just one example of how mainstream media prioritizes a certain group of people over another, and the various gender and racial inequalities that may arise. White supremacy is prevalent in the workplace, and the many characteristics of it cause it to go unnoticed most of the time. This was also seen during World War II when many of the leadership roles in projects such as the atomic bomb project went to white men. Women and other minorities are often considered to be an afterthought and can be exploited for their efforts, and it’s important for us as a society to work on rectifying these issues for the betterment of our communities.

Lee, J. (2013, May 19). 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. National Geographic.https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/5/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/#close

Melfi, T. (Director). (2016). Hidden Figures [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth century fox home entertainment.

Okun, T. (2001). White supremacy culture. Retrieved October 15, 2020. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf

Oreskes, N. (1996). Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science. Osiris, 11, 87–113. doi:10.1086/368756. http://www.jstor.org/stable/301928

Traweek, Sharon. Beamtimes and Lifetimes. 1988. First Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts (75–105)

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Quick Take. (2020, August 4). Catalyst.

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