Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology

Last month, several members of the lab attended the Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology. Dr. Clancy gave the keynote address, and Mary Rogers presented a poster. The conference was fantastic. Almost every talk had some relevance to one or more of my research projects.

'Evolution of Woman' by Eduardo Saiz Alonso

The conference centered around several common themes. First, there's a problem with how male biology is seen as the standard model human and non-human biology, or "normal" biology, whereas female biology is pathologized as "abnormal." Even within female biology, deviating to far from the average (for the populations studied, which are often WEIRD) is considered problematic. Women who have their first period too late or too early,  or have their first child too early (teen moms!) or too late (geriatric pregnancies at 35!) are all seen as problematic. Both socially and biologically, women are expected to stay within tight constraints of "normal." Second, in order to conduct research that examines female biology with greater nuance, we need have greater inclusion and diversity in science. This means that we need to overcome the biases and gatekeeping mechanisms that keep women, and particularly women of color, from rising to the same career levels of men in scientific careers.

The first talk, "Sex, Gender, and Animals" was given by Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at University of Minnesota. She addressed how preconceptions about female and male roles bias how animals are viewed, which in turn is then used to essentialize specific human cultural patterns as normal (Zuk, 2003). She also presented examples from animation about depictions of social insects as male (whereas workers are females), and illustrations portraying ‘scientists’ as predominantly men. Finally, she cautioned against relying too heavily on primate models, and note how the concept of Aristotle’s Great Chain of being still creeps into evolutionary thinking (Zuk, 2003).

The next talk, "Why is Jack More Likely to Become Department Head than Jill" was by Molly Carnes, the Director of Women's Health Research at UW-Madison. She started off with examples of well-known cognitive biases, which she used an analogy for how we make implicit judgements based on race and gender. She provided examples of how women are socialized into different careers within medicine, and how they face a glass ceiling in leadership roles (Carnes et al, 2008). Finally, she discussed a study examining an intervention to overcome implicit bias in the hiring process (Carnes et al, 2009). Training to acknowledge and recognize biases works—but trying to ignore biases (the gender-blind or race-blind approach) does not.

Next was a panel devoted to Ruth Bleier, a neurophysiologist who was a pioneer in feminist biology. Judith Houck, the chair of of Gender and Women's Studies at UW-Wisconsin discussed her legacy and influence at Wisconsin, while Bleier's granddaughter, Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot, discussed feminist anthropology approaches to feminist biology.

The panel was followed by a small poster session, where Mary Rogers presented her poster, "Pathologizing Reproduction in Young Adults: The Pushes and Pulls on Age of Menarche."

Mary with her poster
The next talk, "The Feminist Neurobiology of Mental Health" was given by Ann Fink, the current Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow at UW-Madison. She gave an overview of her work on the neuroplasticity in rodents, and its implications for understanding sex and gender differences in women’s neurobiology. It's assumed a priori that women are predisposed to hormonal fluctuations in mood and susceptible to mental illnesses such as PTSD due to biological differences. However, these interpretations neglect the social and environmental influences that shape neurobiology and the etiology of these conditions. Until research accounts for these mediating factors as well as individual variation, depicting women as hormonal and prone to mood disorders is essentially an updated version of the outdated concept of hysteria.

Dr. Clancy presenting her keynote address

Finally, Dr. Clancy gave her keynote address, "Feminist biology approaches to life history theory and women's reproductive ecology." She started out by introducing our lab and two of the major research projects the lab is working on (reproductive ecology in Polish and Polish-American women, and social and biological factors affecting teenage girls participating in a science camp). She then addressed the issues with problematizing women's biology. 

From Dr. Clancy's keynote:  Stress does not turn you or your womb into a slow cooker of death.

One of the best slides was the "slow cooker of death" analogy for pregnancy. When a woman is stressed during pregnancy, this doesn't mean that she's permanently damaging her baby with her "toxic" stress--it just means that her body is signaling the baby about the environmental context it will be born into. She then described some of the results from the lab's research on social and ecological factors affecting menarche and depression (some of these results will be presented at HBA and AAPA 2017!). She then segued into discussing the need for a diverse variety of perspectives in scientific research. While the percentage of white men have held steady, and the percentage of white women has improved, the number of women of color faculty are declining (Armstrong and Jovanovic, 2015; National Science Foundation, 2015). 

Overall, the conference emphasized the importance of studying variation in female biology, and the work we need to in communicating that variation. While there's important scientific work to do, there's also incredibly important work we need to do outside of our labs. We need to effectively normalize women's biology in science communication, in the media, in our every day conversations. Especially at a time when women's reproductive decisions are dangerously politicized, we need to make sure we communicate accurate information about women's biology and it's range of complexity.

Armstrong MA, Jovanovic J. 2015. Starting at the crossroads: Intersectional approaches to institutionally supporting underrepresented minority women stem faculty. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 21(2):141-157.
Carnes M, Morrissey C, Geller SE. 2008. Women’s health and women’s leadership in academic medicine: Hitting the same glass ceiling? Journal of Women’s Health 17(9): 1454-1462.
Isaac C, Lee B, Carnes M. 2009. Interventions that affect gender bias in hiring: A systematic review. Academic Medicine 84(10): 1440-1446.
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2015. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. Special Report NSF 15-311. Arlington, VA. Available at:
Zuk M. 2003. Sexual Selections: What we Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals. University of California Press.