GSWS group charts the intersection of science and gender


Image courtesy of Bridget Keown

The gender, sexuality and women’s studies department, in collaboration with a number of departments and faculty members, created the Gender and Science Initiative in 2019 to link GSWS studies with the hard sciences. Directed by GSWS lecturer Bridget Keown, this initiative includes gender and science courses as well as extracurricular programming.

By Elizabeth Primrose, Staff Writer

When Jillian Elton took the “Gender and Science” class last semester, she was shocked to learn about some of gender’s influence in medicine including the definition of hysteria, a disease commonly attributed to women for a broad range of symptoms.

“A specific example is how hysteria was a disease category created in order to diagnose various women’s conditions without actually investigating the issues,” Elton, a first-year biology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies major, said. “This idea has continued until today and as a result sometimes women are not as easily believed when they say something is wrong.”

Elton, along with 100 other students, have participated in the Gender and Science Initiative. The GSWS department, in collaboration with a number of departments and faculty members, created this initiative in 2019 to link GSWS topics such as feminist and queer studies with science, technology, engineering and math. Directed by GSWS lecturer Bridget Keown, it includes gender and science courses as well as extracurricular programming, such as reading groups.

The GSWS department hired Keown in fall 2019 to direct the Gender and Science Initiative. During her time at Pitt, Keown said she’s developed courses that involve the intersection of gender and science while also leading a reading group for students who don’t have the time to take these courses.

“What I’m really invested in doing is making this a discussion that can happen in any space on campus. The classroom is a great start, but people don’t always have the time or the credits to devote to these kinds of discussions,” Keown said. “So, we hold reading groups that anyone is welcome to attend. We are looking at books that specifically deal with the intersections of various forms of science as well as addressing current political and social issues.”

The Gender and Science curriculum currently includes courses such as “Gender and Sustainability,” “Transgender Studies,” “Gendered Bodies” and “Gender and Science.” Keown said the initiative will launch “Gender and Medicine” and “Gender, Trauma and Disability” in the fall.

According to the course description, “Gendered Bodies” examines the human body at work in sports and in the media and how it reflects “beauty, health and deviance” ideals. “Gender and Science” focuses on the interaction of gender and sexuality with science, medicine and technology.

Elton said the “Gender and Science” course taught her about the topics still avoided in medical discourse, such as racial bias in science and medicine. In the American health care system today, Black patients’ health outcomes are markedly worse than white patients. Black people tend to receive lower-quality health services, including for cancer, H.I.V. and cardiovascular disease, as well as prenatal and preventative care.

“I was under the belief that science and medicine were something that was hard and uncontested fact, but I learned that there are actually still some topics that have been avoided when discussing medicine, for the sake of advancing the field in other ways,” Elton said. “An example would be avoiding the problems with racial bias in science and medicine, in order to focus on other things like nanotechnology, which is cutting-edge work.”

Keown said some of the Gender and Science Initiative’s goals are to spark more conversations centered on gender and science. She said the group also wants to help diversify scientific fields by understanding the social and structural hierarchies that have excluded people of color, people from lower economic groups and nonbinary people.

“What we’re envisioning is a program that is going to help bring gender theory and feminist theory to science and help scientists think about new ways of diversifying their research,” Keown said. “But also making the practice of science more diverse and equitable.”

Another way the Initiative is accomplishing this goal is through a reading group that meets once a month for an interdisciplinary discussion on books that deal with the intersection of various forms of science. This reading group is open to anyone, and currently has included undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from Pitt, Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon.

Some of the reading list for this semester includes “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology” by Deirdre Cooper Owens and “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racismby Safiya Umoja Noble.

Lisa S. Parker, director of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law — an organization that helped create the initiative — said many faculty members recognized the interrelated nature of GSWS topics and science and technology topics, prompting for initial developments of the program in 2016.

“We recognize that so many of the topics with which gender, sexuality and women are involved are science topics or are science and technology issues. We wanted to make sure we were developing programming around those issues,” Parker, professor of human genetics and bioethics, said. “All of these different science fields are relevant to issues of gender and sexuality, and concerns about a critical analysis of gender and sexuality is relevant to those fields.”

Parker added that working with others is her favorite part of the Gender and Science Initiative.

“Collaboration is the most exciting aspect,” Parker said. “It’s bringing speakers to campus or bringing them virtually, having discussion groups, and really just meeting and drawing into our programming people who previously were not really thinking about issues of gender, gender equity, sexuality and representation of women and the full range of genders.”

Nancy Glazener, director of the GSWS program, said the large number of students who wanted to make connections between their GSWS and science coursework influenced the formation of the Gender and Science Initiative.

“We had a lot of undergraduate majors and minors who also worked in the sciences. They were trying to make connections between their work in GSWS and their other coursework,” Glazener, professor of English and of GSWS, said. “They could certainly make a lot of great connections on their own, but it was clear that we had a constituency that would be interested in these courses if we could develop them.”

According to Glazener, the GSWS department wants to eventually create GSWS classes that have science prerequisites.

“We’re wanting to find more ways to figure out how our curriculum can serve students in the sciences,” Glazener said. “Some of the ways we want to explore, is the possibility for GSWS courses that have prerequisites in the sciences so that everyone might come in with foundational knowledge of, say, bio.”

Throughout her time directing the Gender and Science Initiative so far, Keown said she has loved seeing the students in the program who will be leaders in creating the future of science.

“One of the things that I really love is getting to be a part of students’ work in creating the future of science,” Keown said. “You really have the chance to see the people who are going to be the leaders in these fields in the coming year and to help them find a career that is going to make health care more equitable.”