Feminist Biology

Feminist biology is the application of feminist theory and methods to the study of biology. A feminist lens acknowledges past gender bias in biology and seeks to correct it using critically-aware methods. Science is inherently subjective because humans are inherently subjective. Yet, science is an area where we humans strive to be more objective than usual, which means being willing to rethink ideas as we find new evidence or recognize problems with past research.

In the last 20 years, women have increased their representation in the field of biology. Perhaps this is why biology is the natural science that has moved beyond simply wondering how to increase female representation in the discipline (though that remains an important consideration) toward considering how everyone’s biases about gender might be affecting our collective knowledge about biology. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recently recognized that researchers, regardless of gender, were frequently using only male animal cells during pre-clinical trials. This made it impossible for researchers to predict whether or how stimuli affected females and males differently. In 2014, NIH took steps to rectify this, by developing policies ensuring that studies funded by NIH used both male and female cells during the pre-clinical portion of the project unless the study specifically related to only one sex.

In 2014, I was named the first Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow in Feminist Biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This program was developed to further the application of feminist theory to the study of biology. Dr. Gertraude Wittig had a Ph.D. in biology and spent her career witnessing (and likely experiencing) how women were discriminated against in the sciences. Upon her death in 2011, she left an endowment to the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Research on Gender and Women with the express instructions to fund a postdoctoral position dedicated to encouraging an early career biologist to conduct research with a gender focus while developing their knowledge of gender-fair research methods.

As a postdoc, I studied how we identify sex in the hominin fossil record and what, in turn, sex identification of skeletons might tell us about hominin evolution. I recognized that researchers largely discuss changes in the hominin pelvis in the context of birthing adaptations that became necessary as brain size increased in our hominin ancestors. However, the pelvic fossil evidence, which now includes the anatomy of Homo naledi, can not be explained solely by birth-related adaptations. In fact, there is not clear evidence that birth adaptations were needed in early hominins, yet Australopithecus sediba appears to have human-like hips. My current work applies a feminist lens to this problem by suggesting that perhaps too much focus on the importance of birth has blinded us to other causes of hominin pelvic variation that need to be studied to understand hominin evolution.

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