Campus Free Speech

'Are STEM Syllabi Gendered?' A Feminist Professor Says Women Can't Do Science

Concepts like objective truth and the scientific method are inherently sexist, study says.


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Remember that University of Oregon study about how historical depictions of glaciers have somehow undermined the cause of feminism? This one might actually be more absurd.

The syllabi for college-level STEM courses—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are "gendered" because they promote the idea that knowledge can be ascertained through reason. This is a masculine concept that hurts women's feelings and makes it difficult for them to succeed.

That's according to "Are STEM Syllabi Gendered? A Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis" of the STEM syllabi at one Midwestern university. The discourse was authored by the University of North Dakota's Laura Parson, and published in The Qualitative Report earlier this year.

It presupposes that certain stylistic choices—command words like "will" and "must"—are inherently masculine and anti-woman, and then sets out to determine whether these words show up in STEM syllabi. Since a syllabus is not a negotiation, but rather, a set of instructions about how to succeed in a given class, they do indeed contain lots of commands.

According to Parson, such language reinforces "a competitive, difficult, chilly climate." This climate "marginalizes women." Why? Because they're delicate snowflakes who couldn't possibly handle a little competition and difficulty—implicitly, that's what Parson is saying.

Who's the feminist, again?

But it's not just competition that marginalizes women in the classroom: the process of acquiring knowledge—the scientific method—is "inherently discriminatory to women and minorities," according to the study.

Here's one passage:

Syllabi promote the positivist view of knowledge by suggesting that there are correct conclusions that can be drawn with the right tools:

  • "A critical thinker considers all available evidence with an open mind and uses appropriate techniques to analyze that evidence and reach a conclusion (Lower level geology)."
  • "The main goal is to attain knowledge and comprehension of major concepts and techniques of organic chemistry (Upper level chemistry)."

As these examples show, the STEM syllabi explored in this study demonstrated a view of knowledge that was to be acquired by the student, which promotes a view of knowledge as unchanging. This is further reinforced by the use of adverbs to imply certainty such as "actually" and "in fact" which are used in syllabi to identify information as factual and beyond dispute (Biber, 2006a; 2006b). For example, "draw accurate conclusions from scientific data presented in different formats" (Lower level math). Instead of promoting the idea that knowledge is constructed by the student and dynamic, subject to change as it would in a more feminist view of knowledge, the syllabi reinforce the larger male-dominant view of knowledge as one that students acquire and use make the correct decision.

In case it's unclear, Parson is asserting that this statement—"a critical thinker considers all available evidence with an open mind and uses appropriate techniques to analyze that evidence and reach a conclusion"—is anti-woman. She's saying that if you think facts are facts, your views are misogynistic.

Okay. In my view, no one who believes "knowledge is constructed" has any business designing airplanes and rocket ships. Of course, my views are no doubt shaped by patriarchal assumptions, like how gravity's acceleration is 9.8 m/s squared and the square root of a negative number is imaginary. (Note: I had to Google both those facts. Everyone else in the Reason office, including and especially my female colleagues, is better at math and science than I am.)

Again, the notion that women can't succeed in the sciences because they're just too feelings-oriented is sexist and wrong and ought to be opposed. Everyone is an individual—some individiauls are good at some things, others are good at other things. It's very weird to see sexist, gender-based collectivism appropriated by self-proclaimed feminists in the service of bashing female intelligence. But that's what you get in colleges these days.

Hat tip: New Real Peer Review