Exploring Different Methods and Approaches to Doing Feminist Biomedical Science

As Heather Shattuck-Heidorn explains in her recent post, scientific researchers, particularly in the health sciences, are being required by funding institutions to consider the concepts sex and/or gender in their research. Despite the introduction of these requirements, as Sari van Anders [Editor’s note: Hi! that’s ME!] summarizes in her review of Johnson et al., (2014), there is still inconsistent use of the concepts across disciplines as many researchers continue to use gender as a proxy for sex and sex and/or gender to simply mean including women in research studies.

This led us to search the feminist science literature for some direction. We limited feminist science scholarship to feminist scientists and feminist science studies scholars in the fields of biomedicine and public health. These scholars explicitly indicate that they use feminist approaches to science or use feminist conceptions of gender, sex, race and/or ethnicity in their work. What methods have feminist scientists developed to do biomedical science differently? How do these methods improve scientific knowledge and understanding of the world? Using these questions to guide our work, we sought to synthesize the theoretical and methodological approaches in the feminist biomedical science literature.

In our paper[1], we categorize feminist approaches to biomedical science into three main approaches: strong objectivity, partial perspective, and gendered innovations. By grouping the literature into these categories, we identify and describe different ways of doing feminist biomedical science and the particular aspects of the scientific method that each feminist approach seeks to change and improve.

The strong objectivity framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Sandra Harding and argues that science can be more objective if researchers include diverse perspectives and subjects/ experiences (for a deeper explanation, see Sari’s post Is Subjectivity Biased [Editor’s note: I am glad someone finally noticed how deep I am.]) into their research designs. Feminist empiricist and feminist standpoint approaches offer methodological direction for feminist scientists looking to apply the strong objectivity framework [Editor’s note: after all, it’s hard to take theory into practice, so this is really important]. Feminist empiricists offer a way for scientists to think critically about the theories and concepts they will employ by applying feminist and/or antiracist concepts and theories to critically analyze research in their fields of interest. This allows researchers to identify critical flaws in previous research designs and thereby open up new opportunities for research. Feminist standpoint approaches offer a way for scientists to locate their subjects and account for interacting social factors produced by gendered and racialized environments. The work of feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, The Bare Bones of Sex and The Bare Bones of Race [Editor’s note: I don’t mean to brag, but I totally know Anne Fausto-Sterling AND Sandra Harding so basically I am famous], provides an example of research that falls under the strong objectivity framework. Fausto-Sterling identifies critical discrepancies in how researchers define and measure bone health among and between women and men and suggests using a dynamics systems approach to account for social, geographical, and historical environmental factors that shape sex/gender and racial differences in bone health. In other words, the strong objectivity framework uses feminist concepts and theories to think critically about hypotheses, data collection methods, and interpretations of results, and promotes the design more complex and rigorous research studies

The partial perspectives framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Donna Haraway [Editor’s note: I don’t really know Donna Haraway but we emailed once so, basically, we are BFFs] and encourages feminist scientists to go beyond exposing gender and racial assumptions and “bad science” to examine the partial perspectives of scientific researchers. The partial perspectives framework does not seek to provide a more objective or truer knowledge of the world but rather strives to achieve what Haraway terms “feminist objectivity”. In contrast to strong objectivity, feminist objectivity requires researchers to think reflexively about their research interests and locate their objects of study and in doing so, deconstruct the web of power relations that allows certain sexed, gendered, and raced bodies to be produced and naturalized. Feminist science scholars El-Haj (2007), Gannett (2004), and M’charek (2005, 2013) provide examples of research that falls under the partial perspectives framework. These scholars use examples from population geneticists, DNA forensics and medical practices to trace how “biologi­cal races” [Editor’s note: I put irony quotes around biological races because I think they belong there and also because you can “never” have “enough” irony “quotes”] have been re-constituted in and through these scientific technologies and practices. And so, the partial perspectives framework seeks to deconstruct fields of research even before researchers consider the concepts, theories, and data collection methods they will use to design their research and thereby creates conceptual space for new research possibilities.

Finally, the gendered innovations framework draws on the work of feminist science historian Londa Schiebinger [Editor’s note: I don’t know Londa Schiebinger at all but I have read her work so, um, well, I’ve got nothing] and argues that integrating feminist concepts such as sex and gender into scientific research will advance our understanding and produce more scientific innovations. The methodology of this framework draws largely on the work of feminist scientists working in the fields of public health and biomedicine that have proposed ways to integrate and operationalize the concepts of sex, gender, race and/or ethnicity into the research process. Feminist scientists such as Johnson et al. ( 2009), Kaiser (2012), Krieger (2003), Springer et al. (2012), Ritz et al. (2014), Ford and Airhihenbuwa (2010), Gravlee (2009), and Hankivsky (2012) offer practical guidance to researchers seeking to use these concepts. The cross-disciplinary collaboration required to do this work has the potential to foster a shared language and the creation of new ways of operationalizing these concepts (both the social and biomedical sciences; see Hird 2009). Basically, the gendered innovations approach introduces additional steps in the scientific research process so that researchers account for sex, gender, and other intersecting factors related to their research that they might not have captured otherwise.

The various feminist methods we identify in our paper are illustrated in Figure 1. There are areas of research that I’m sure we missed in and outside the field of biomedicine. This paper is by no means an exhaustive review but rather simply seeks to provide a starting point to discuss, refine, and name some of the different feminist methods for doing science differently. [Editor’s note: what an awesome figure!!].

[1] See: Sarah Singh and Ineke Klinge (2015) ‘Mining for Methods: A Review of the Theoretical and Methodological Contributions of Feminist Science Studies’, Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeschlechterStudien (fzg). 12 (2). Pg. 15-31.

Sex, Gender, and the New NIH Policy

In May 2014, the NIH released a new policy mandate requiring equal representation of “sex” in all preclinical research (the research on animals and cellular materials that occurs before clinical trials in humans). I am part of a Harvard-based working group of scientists and science studies scholars that spent the last year reviewing the evidence for this new policy. In a recent opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we argue that while this policy is well intended, if the goal is to address women’s health inequities, it is ultimately unlikely to be effective. Here, at the invitation of Gap Junction Science, I delve into some of our criticisms in a more substantial way for a feminist science studies audience.

 

First, a bit of history. Once upon a time, white males were taken as the normative “species type” and clinical medical trials largely included only white men as participants. As a result, occasionally women using medications would have serious and unanticipated adverse reactions to drugs that had proved safe in men. In the 1980s feminists and/or medical scientists began agitating to improve the representation of women in medical research. This led the NIH to mandate the inclusion of women in clinical trials and to establish the Office of Women’s Health Research in the early 1990s. Yet today, despite adequate representation of women in clinical trials, women continue to disproportionately report adverse drug reactions. These drug reactions are a serious public health concern, as they are responsible for up to 5% of emergency room visits and roughly 100,000 deaths a year in the US.

Why, when women are approximately equally represented in clinical trials, do women continue to report a higher percentage of these reactions? According to proponents of the new NIH mandate, it is largely due to the unequal representation of females in preclinical research; i.e., with animal models and cellular material. Similar to human studies of yore, in some areas of preclinical research, research material is predominately male, and the donor sex of cellular material is often not reported. The new mandate suggests that unequal representation in preclinical materials is lurking behind the health disparity seen in men and women’s adverse drug reactions. NIH policies must serve human health and the explicit policy aim of the new mandate is to improve health outcomes between men and women in the realm of adverse drug reactions.

In our opinion piece, we argue that this policy is not likely to achieve that goal for two primary reasons. First, the non-hypothesis-driven study of sex differences in all preclinical research lacks conceptual clarity about just what sex is. Animal and cellular materials that poorly model human sex run the risk of generating non-replicable or irrelevant findings. For some preclinical materials, such as cell lineages, it is unknown whether XX and XY lineages are valid models of sex differences in humans (see this older post by Stacey Ritz!). For example, a non-negligible percent of XY cell line material has lost the Y chromosome during repeated replication. To what degree do these materials model human male biology? Animal models of sex difference are also challenging – in social animals housing condition produces significant variability in study outcomes, and male animals are often housed at lower densities than females. When modeling human sex differences in the lab, it is not enough to simply include XX and XY tissues or male and female animals and then attribute any differences found to intrinsic sex. Depending on the disease or condition under investigation, researchers analyzing sex-related factors may need to consider whether hormone exposures are relevant, the appropriate age or developmental stage to discern differences, and other variables. A broad mandate requiring study of sex in preclinical materials overlooks these considerations; instead preclinical sex difference models should be hypothesis-driven and validated with respect to the research question at hand.

Second, human sex-linked health disparities may be attributable to sex, gender, and the interaction of the two; focusing solely on sex variables, the mandate presents an impoverished approach to advancing scientific understanding of health disparities between men and women. Highlighting the need for research on gender alongside sex is a critical contribution of feminist science studies scholars. The case of health disparities in adverse reactions is an excellent example of the need for greater intellectual and institutional commitment to sex-gender research, and here I’ll develop this point in greater detail than our short PNAS piece allowed.

We know that gender influences how women and men interact with the medical system. For instance, women are more likely than men to regularly visit a doctor. The reporting of adverse drug reactions is voluntary, and fascinating recent data released by the FDA indicates that for women, nearly half of the adverse drug reactions on record are self-reported to a doctor, while for men, the majority of reactions are reported by a healthcare professional or other third parties. Similar to women’s greater likelihood to regularly visit a doctor, these data could indicate a greater propensity by women to report the experience of an adverse drug reaction.

Polypharmacy is another gender-related variable influencing higher rates of adverse drug reactions in women. Women are more likely than men to be on multiple medications, a major risk factor for adverse drug reactions. It is possible that the majority of serious drug reactions could be avoided simply by adhering to known information regarding contradicting prescriptions. Oral contraceptives are involved in significant numbers of adverse drug reaction cases. Recent research also indicates that SSRIs (a popular type of antidepressant) increase the risk of serious gastrointestinal adverse effects when combined with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin and ibuprofen). Nearly 1 in 4 US women take antidepressants, more than twice the rate of men, and we have long known that doctors are more likely to diagnose women than men with psychological diseases, even given the same clinical presentation.

Furthermore, there is evidence that some of the sex differences in adverse reactions are due to differences in outcomes such as allergic skin reactions. Allergic skin reactions are especially interesting to consider in light of known sex and gender differences. Outside of the context of adverse drug reactions, women generally report more allergic dermatitis reactions than men, a disparity linked to differences in exposure and contact factors, rather than intrinsic sex differences. Research on eczema has also shown that women experience greater distress from active eczema episodes, and that men are more likely to leave their eczema untreated. How these gender-inflicted differences in exposure factors, distress experience, and treatment probability in non-drug associated allergic dermatitis relate to the greater reported incidence of allergic dermal adverse drug reactions in women is unknown.

[Editor’s Note: IS THIS THE BEST MEME THINGIE EVER OR WHAT?!]

This is not to say there are no sex-intrinsic differences in adverse drug reactions, including those potentially related to drug metabolism. On average, there are known differences in enzymatic activity between men and women, though these are not consistent in all studies and may vary by age and ethnicity. We emphatically support basic and preclinical research on these types of sex differences. In our article we specifically argue for more validation research on how animal and cellular materials can model human sex differences. But we believe that the wholesale introduction of sex as a variable into all preclinical research will produce results of dubious meaning and introduce conceptual muddle into understanding sex and gender disparities in health outcomes. In an atmosphere of limited funding, this mandate will capture institutional resources and energy, which come at an opportunity cost to research on other types of questions. On the question of why women have greater rates of adverse drug reactions, we sorely need studies that examine how both sexed and gendered factors interact in the lives of men and women to create this health disparity.

Heather Shattuck-Heidorn is a Ph.D. candidate in Human Evolutionary Biology, with a secondary field in Women and Gender Studies, at Harvard University. Her research focuses on immune function in humans, and sex and gender in science. You can contact her at heather.shattuckfaegre@gmail.com, HEB Department, 11 Divinity Ave. Cambridge, MA 01239.

Even the cows are male: Impacts of gender/sex policy on grant apps

What happens when grant institutes ask applicants whether they are considering gender and sex? Joy Johnson, Zena Sharman, Bilkis Vissandjee, and Donna E. Stewart found out. But they’re not just your everyday run-of-the-mill finder-outers: Dr. Johnson is the Scientific Director of the Institute of Gender and Health (IGH, one of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR), Dr. Sharman is its Assistant Director, Dr. Vissandjee is a Professor at the University of Montreal, and Donna E. Stewart is a Professor at the University of Toronto. You can see the article here. Long introduction short: in December 2010, CIHR instituted a requirement that all applicants had to indicate whether their grant accounted for sex or gender. These authors wanted to see what happened. I feel like it wouldn’t be inappropriate to insert those Law and Order doink-doink sounds here, from when they start off their show, in case you were wondering.

These are the questions: definitely not an onerous burden! And, they provided online links to applicants for help about gender and sex.

Why did CIHR use these questions? Basically, to solve this problem: that scientists generally study only men/males and aren’t really changing. The authors looked at all successfully funded applications (not just a sample). They couldn’t look at unfunded applications because of CIHR privacy laws, which is too bad because it would be interesting to see whether gender/sex attention differed according to funding status. Anyway, the policy made a difference: the purple line shows that relatively fewer applicants did not incorporate sex and gender over time, and the other lines show that relatively more applicants did incorporate especially sex but also gender over time.

Take-home: Over time, more applicants attended to sex and gender, and fewer applicants didn’t.

Also cool: the authors were able to look at fields: clinical research applicants were the most likely to take sex into account, and population health applicants the most likely to address gender. Biomedical applicants were, um, a bit behind: they were the least likely to take gender or sex into account – with over 80% initially saying no to both and ending up with 60% saying no to both (better, but I don’t need my swooning couch anytime soon).

You might be thinking: what about the applicants themselves? We know that ‘gender’ is often code for ‘women,’ which has the corollary that women are way more likely to think about gender than men are. That held true here: men applicants were less likely to involve sex or gender in their project than women applicants. Perusing the figures, it seems to me that the difference between disciplines is more marked than the difference between women and men applicants, though I didn’t run any stats on this.

Also very interesting: some panels were more likely to have applicants focusing on gender and/or sex. These high achievers included:

  • Aboriginal Peoples’ Health
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology -B (I don’t think this means it’s the B Team, though, just to be clear)
  • Social and Developmental Aspects of Children’s and Youth’s Health
  • Gender, Sex and Health (it would have been really embarrassing if this category wasn’t on this list.)
  • Psychosocial, Sociocultural and Behavioural Determinants of Health (1 and 2, whatever that means)
  • Public, Community and Population Health -1

I think we can all agree that the first thing anyone would notice on this list is the lack of the Oxford comma for a commonwealth country. AM I RIGHT?! The second thing is that this is actually a bit of a mixed bag but also kind of not. If you excluded the thematic outlier (biochemistry and molecular biology) (and don’t forget the “-B”!!!), all the other titles invoke culture somehow. So gender and sex = culture?

Of course, some panels were more likely to focus on sex, and some on gender. Some were also more likely to not focus on gender or sex, with gender especially absent (usually present ZERO times):

  • Biochemistry & Molecular Biology -A (in stark contrast to its sibling panel, B, above, which must make for some really tense family reunions)
  • Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease
  • Cell Physiology
  • Basically any panel that had an “-ology” in it (e.g. Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease, Immunology & Transplantation, Developmental Biology, etc.)
  • Basically any panel that has a new fancy way of not saying “-ology” but kind of really meaning it but saying neuroscience or behavioural sciences instead (e.g., Systems & Clinical Neuroscience, Cardiovascular System, Pharmaceutical Sciences, etc.)

Based on this and some other analyses, the authors note, and I like their language:

These results suggest that the integration of sex and gender is divided upon disciplinary lines, with the behavioural and public health communities having adopted the integration sex/gender and those panels based on cellular processes having apparently resisted voluntary incorporation of these considerations (bold mine, ALL MINE!).

I, personally, would have done a very loud tsk tsk and given cellular processes a very stern look, but these authors perhaps took a less volatile approach.

The authors did some qualitative analyses on the applicants’ text answers and found that applicants often conflated sex with gender, using “gender” in animal studies and studies of biological differences. The reverse wasn’t true: people didn’t use sex when they meant gender. And, as I wrote above, women = gender, so the authors note that applicants who were studying women OR who were studying women and men saw themselves as studying gender. Ha ha cry cry. Though some applicants talked about using gender and/or sex as a covariate, disconcertingly people would talk about recruiting equal numbers of women and men but:

… the descriptions of the methods did not specify a plan for analyzing these data by sex and/or gender.

Well, that sounds good. Willy nilly is definitely the best part of science, right? Right? What did people say when they did not integrate sex or gender? Get ready:

This is a basic science research project.

Because gender/sex = not science, as everyone knows. They also said:

No human subjects used in this study.

Because, as even our nations’ preschoolers know, animals come in only one flavor: male. Seriously, try to get someone to call any animal (especially a big, strong, scary, or ugly one) ‘she’ and watch their mouth stop working.

Even daycare-aged kids know that all animals are male. Even the cows are male.

There were other problematic responses, including that because the issue was “equally important” to men and women, gender/sex didn’t need to be accounted for. That is philosophy of logic right there, in action. Or, if applicants were studying only women or only men, then gender/sex was irrelevant. My undergraduate students sometimes struggle with this, to be fair: we live in a culture where gender = gender difference, and sex = sex difference. So if difference isn’t being studied, then a surprising number of people (including, apparently, PhDs and MDs who are studying gender/sex) will think that gender and sex aren’t being studied. Are you studying pregnancy? Well, as everyone knows, that has nothing to do with sex or gender because only women (and of course some trans men) do pregnancy. Are you studying semen? That has nothing to do with sex or gender, since only men (and of course some trans women) do semen. If you studied pregnancy in women and men, or if you studied semen in men and women, well, there you’d be all over gender/sex fer sher.

There was one excuse-I-mean-justification that was very striking and worrisome:

… lack of evidence – for example, no prior evidence of sex or gender-based differences.

Because science, obviously, only studies what’s already known. I mean, that’s what science does, right?! It’s not like we scientists are about producing new knowledge, asking unasked questions. That’s for amateurs!

Anyway, being snarky here is just like shooting fish in a barrel, which I have never done but sounds intriguing. So, moving on, the authors conclude (among other things):

…funding agencies have a key role to play in enabling this shift [38]. For example, the design and implementation of funding agency-level changes such as extending sex-based inclusion requirements to preclinical animal studies, providing applicants with clear instructions on sex and gender, educating applicants, peer reviewers and agency staff on the importance of sex and gender, and engaging in regular measurement and monitoring of progress [15], [39]. … knowledge gaps suggested by the results of the qualitative analysis presented here – for example, the persistent conflation of sex and gender by health researchers, the assumption that gender applies only to women, and the perception that sex is not relevant to research on animal or cell models.

I think the part of this paper that makes my heart glad is that the authors use science and scholarship to understand what is going on with grant applications. The part that makes my heart less glad is how much – I’m going to say it! – ignorance there is about the most basics around gender and sex even among a progressive nation’s most high-achieving scientists (um, full disclosure: I’m from Canada, but I think all those indices always put Canada pretty high on a progressive scale). But epistemology of ignorance or agnatology – the study of what we don’t know and why we don’t know it – is critical to moving forward and understanding where we are. The part that makes my heart sweat in a bad way is: can we do the work? That part that makes my heart sweat in a good way is: obviously, and this helps us know where to start. (My heart does a lot, sometimes.)

Men sent to Mars and women sent to Venus: A thought experiment in honor of the NIH’s upcoming policies on incorporating sex in basic research

Guest post by Stacey Ritz

Imagine if you will…

Editor’s note: this is my favorite drawing ever.

It’s the year 2075. After a worldwide search for the hardiest human beings, one man and one woman are selected to colonize other planets: Bob (a chemist from Finland) is sent to Mars, and Flo (a rice farmer from Thailand) is sent to Venus.

Editor’s note: These are skeptical clones (see the eyebrow??).

Each of them is placed in a large spacecraft provisioned with a laboratory for human cloning, 6 months’ worth of basic food and water rations along with oxygen, and space to house 5000 people; the World Space Organization will send additional rations for the populations every 6 months, and once the colonies are at maximum capacity, the WSO will conduct scientific tests of a variety of parameters on the colony.

After a lengthy journey, Bob and Flo arrive on their respective planets, set up their laboratories, and begin producing clones of themselves. They are very successful: by 2125 they are at maximum capacity, and the WSO sends scientists to study the populations.

In the first battery of tests, the scientists make the following measurements:

Editor’s note: WHO IS THIS GUY?! I definitely don’t trust his results.

  • Assay serum levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Administer the “Verbal Reasoning” section of the MCAT
  • Determine the ED50 (effective dose in 50% of the population) for the anaesthetic drug propofol
  • Evaluate leg strength by determining the maximum amount of weight the subjects can leg press
  • Measure height

Their findings are as follows:

Editor’s note: bar graphs!!

Excited by these data, the WSO scientists send the following report back to earth:

MAJOR GENDER* DIFFERENCES FOUND IN MOST EARLY MEASURES

Our initial testing of the inhabitants of Mars and Venus revealed stark differences between men and women for a variety of parameters. Men had significantly higher serum LDL cholesterol than women, which may explain the higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease in men. As expected, women had a much stronger aptitude for verbal reasoning than men, which is in line with the body of literature documenting that women have stronger communication skills than men. Women also required a 44% lower dose of propofol to achieve anaesthesia; anaesthesiologists should adjust their dosages of propofol accordingly for male and female patients. Just like on Earth, men were taller than women, but surprisingly there were no significant differences in lower body strength.

It is probably instantly obvious to most people that this experiment has a whole whack of problems that invalidate the scientists’ conclusions. Given the way this was set up, it is OBVIOUSLY completely unreasonable to ascribe the differences observed in these tests to the sex of the populations. The results could reflect any number of other differences between the two populations that have nothing to do with their sex, for example:

  • Genetically-inherited tendencies:
    • Turns out that Bob has a family history of genetic hypercholesterolemia and tall stature, and his allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that is very efficient in breaking down propofol. On the other hand, Flo comes from a somewhat short family with normal cholesterol, and her allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that has moderate efficiency in metabolizing propofol.
  • Socio-cultural factors:
    • The MCAT verbal reasoning test was administered in English. Flo speaks fluent English and Thai, and so the clones on Venus learned both languages from her and are fluently bilingual. Bob speaks Finnish and broken English, and so the clones on Mars are not very proficient in English.
  • Environmental influences:
    • The specific gravity is 0.376g on Mars, and 0.904g on Venus. Thus, gravity exerted less downward force on the bodies of the inhabitants of Mars, which would tend to allow them to grow taller than those living on Venus.
  • Interactions between genetics and environment:
    • The genetic tendency to tallness of the Bob clones that was magnified by the lower gravity on Mars; although their bodies were larger, the lower gravity on Mars meant that their leg muscles did not have to be as well developed in order to support their (higher) body weight. In contrast, the genetic tendency to shortness of the Flo clones was magnified by the higher gravity; although their bodies were smaller, the higher gravity on Venus meant that their leg muscles had to be relatively more developed to support their (lower) body weight. Thus the net effect of these genetic and environmental influences resulted in similar lower body strength between the groups.
    • Radiation exposure on the space journey to Venus caused a mutation in the CYP2B6 allele in the cell that Flo happened to use in her cloning; the mutation caused a 50% decrease in the activity of the enzyme, so propofol was metabolized more slowly in the clones than in Flo herself.
  • Researcher bias and over-extrapolation:
    • The findings on verbal reasoning fit with the researchers’ pre-existing perception that women are better communicators, so they didn’t consider whether there might be other factors that confounded their findings (ie. language).
    • The researchers are stretching their conclusions pretty far to argue that the difference seen in LDL cholesterol in a genetically homogeneous population under tightly controlled conditions explains a difference in the prevalence of a complex disease in a genetically heterogeneous population with little control over conditions.

You might be saying “well this is OBVIOUSLY a TOTALLY RIDICULOUS scenario and scientists would NEVER make these kinds of mistakes in interpretation.” Well, actually, what I’m suggesting is that people make these kinds of mistakes all the time when interpreting data from cell and animal studies (and also from human studies) that make crude comparisons of male vs. female.

Let me unpack my tortured analogy a bit to make the parallels more explicit:

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT CELLS EXPERIMENTAL ANIMALS
The hardiest humans are chosen to colonize another planet. Normal people aren’t chosen because they probably wouldn’t survive. Most cells grown in vitro for laboratory use are ‘cell lines’: cells of the type we’re interested in that have a nearly limitless ability to proliferate. These are usually cancer cells, or cells that have been genetically modified to permit ongoing proliferation. They are NOT normal. Most animals used in experiments are inbred, and have been adapted to laboratory conditions over many generations. They are NOT human and differ from humans in substantial ways.
The colonizers live in an atypical environment with the bare essentials they need to survive. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live. Cells are grown in a plastic flask, fed by culture media. This does not reflect the conditions in which normal cells live. Experimental animals live in cages under highly controlled conditions. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live.
Instead of living in a complex, dynamic human society made up of many different people, the colonizers live in a relatively static environment surrounded by others exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans normally live. Instead of living in a complex, dynamic body made up of many kinds of cells, the cells live in a relatively static culture environment surrounded by other cells exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which cells normally live. Instead of living in natural social groups and engaging in natural behaviour, animals are segregated into groups based on the convenience of the scientist, and live only with other animals of the same sex. This does not reflect the conditions in which mice or humans normally live.
The living conditions of the residents of Mars are different from those of the residents of Venus. The culture medium and conditions used for different cell lines are often different. In mice (the most commonly used experimental mammal), males are usually housed at lower density than females because of the males’ tendency to aggression against one another.
Differences observed between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female cell lines may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female animals may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest.
More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex.

In the 14 May 2014 edition of Nature, the NIH announced that it intends to roll out policies beginning in October 2014 that will “require applicants to report their plans for the balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies in all future applications, unless sex-specific inclusion is unwarranted, based on rigorously defined exceptions.” Although I applaud the motivation underlying these changes, I am far from convinced that simply requiring scientists to include male and female cells or animals in their work will be a significant advance in addressing sex and gender in medical research – in fact, I fear that a crude approach of this sort will not only fail to address concerns around equity, but it may in fact exacerbate them and serve to affirm our cultural bias that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

So what do you think? Is my tortured analogy off-base? Will this policy and others like it help or hinder equity in biomedical research?

*Let’s ignore for the moment the ways that scientists tend to conflate sex and gender….that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Charles Darwin’s Correspondence with Women

Guest Author: Samantha Evans, Co-Editor, Charles Darwin Correspondence Project

The Darwin Correspondence Project is a long-term academic project publishing all Charles Darwin’s extant correspondence (letters to him and letters from him) in an annotated edition, both in hard-copy and online. We have also published selections of letters, and since the suggestion was made of publishing a selection of women’s letters, growing out of our online “Darwin and gender” project, I have been looking at Darwin’s correspondence with women and thinking about what it tells us about women’s place in the nineteenth-century scientific community, and how Darwin’s interactions with women influenced his theories.

I own Movember. (Editor’s note.)

Based in a village in Kent, Charles Darwin relied hugely on correspondence in his work. Fortunately a substantial amount of his correspondence survives – nearly 15,000 letters – and provides insight not only into his own thought processes but into middle-class Victorian society in general.

We know of letters to or from around 2000 correspondents, about 100 of whom were women. To get an idea of the overall content of the letters I read the summaries available on the Darwin Correspondence Project’s online Calendar and assigned them to rough categories.  I included in the count letters to women in Darwin’s family that contained messages for Darwin.

Nearly half of the surviving 650 or so letters to or from women are to do with family matters. Despite the fact that Darwin and his wife Emma were rarely separated after their marriage, the correspondence between them is the largest surviving one between Darwin and a woman. The next biggest block after family matters, around 76 letters, might be described as observations. These were from women  – often strangers – who had read Darwin’s work, had noticed something that they thought might interest him, and wrote to him about it; or they might be letters to or from friends and relations who had been asked by Darwin to make specific observations. The next biggest  – around 64 letters – is to and from botanists. I used this term to cover women who were publishing on botany or who were acknowledged by their contemporaries to be skilled practitioners. Botanists carried on the most lengthy and detailed correspondences with Darwin of all his female correspondents other than close family members. Botany was a popular subject for women to take up: it could be learnt and practised at home. One of Darwin’s botanical correspondents, Mary Treat, was also an entomologist, and one woman wrote to him about geology.

After these categories come in descending order: friends; go-betweens (women writing on behalf of a man); writers (usually women writing on science); and editors (there is a substantial correspondence between Darwin and his daughter Henrietta about the editing of his works). Another category that suggested itself but that I omitted since it cut across too many others was “trying to get a pension for someone”. Some letters didn’t sort easily into any category at all, such as instructions for making ginger beer and someone seeking to sell a portrait of Erasmus Darwin. In addition, there are a small but interesting set of letters in which women challenged Darwin on his views on religion or women’s place in society.

The correspondence reveals that Darwin was happy to rely on women for observations (relatives might be roped in to search for plants, for example, or to survey the amount of earth turned over by worms), experimental work, editorial help, and advice on presentation. We know from Darwin’s own comments that Emma was prepared to tell him whether a paper he liked was too boring to republish, and that the women in the family reined him in when he wrote to his Roman Catholic adversary St George Jackson Mivart. Henrietta was a valued editor of his works. In his correspondence with women botanists, Darwin was neither dismissive nor patronising. If he was interested in their findings he urged them to publish, because it was better for him to refer to published works. He didn’t see women exclusively in ancillary roles: he knew women who published in their own right, and he must have been aware of arguments that the generally inferior intellectual status of women was maintained artificially by their exclusion from examinations and learned societies. He supported women’s education in physiology, even though some thought it an unfeminine (messy) subject.

Darwin’s comments on the “difference in the mental powers of the two sexes” in Descent of man 2: 326–9 are complex, and further complicated by views on inheritance that might seem strange today. He begins  with a nod to the view that there is no difference, which he denies, not, at first, on the grounds of women’s lesser intelligence, but on the grounds of their greater tenderness. So far, so conciliatory; a difference in disposition is something Darwin can support from observations of other mammals. Men, on the other hand, have the “unfortunate birthright” of competitiveness (inherent in male competition for females), which can lead to selfishness. However, men have achieved higher eminence in all fields; and Darwin attributes this not to social causes, but to the very habit of dogged persistence that he thought arose from constant competition. (This view of the key to male success is interesting in the light of Darwin’s own opinion of his “genius”; he suggested the motto “It is dogged as does it” for scientific workers, and generally thought patience and persistence more valuable than inspiration. [Editor’s Note: This is so fascinating! But I can see why that motto didn’t catch on…]. Additionally, Darwin thought that constant fighting and hunting would have led to greater “observation, reason, invention or imagination”. (He does not discuss whether the conditions of female life, even stereotypically confined to childcare, housekeeping, and “gathering,” would have developed similar qualities.)

At this point, Darwin applies his own logic of inheritance. Darwin believed that faculties developed later in life were likely to be transmitted only to one’s own sex, whereas faculties developed earlier in life could be transmitted to both. Hence, the particular skills that men acquired through adult conflict and struggle would tend to be passed to their sons only, entrenching sexual difference.

By the end of this passage, Darwin has concluded that “man has ultimately become superior to women,” and is expressing relief that equal inheritance of characters has generally prevailed among mammals, otherwise

man would have become as superior in endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.

(Editor’s note: It is illegal to discuss Charles Darwin without somehow referencing a peacock.)

This seems a conservative conclusion: but he believes that women can, with an effort, raise themselves to the same standards as men. The measures he describes (training in energy and perseverance; having her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point) suggests that the effort involved amounts to having the same education as men, who must maintain their superiority in a similarly effortful way. Oddly, though, he can only imagine this improvement being disseminated infinitely slowly (if at all), by inheritance from a few educated women, rather than more rapidly by universal education.

When he was asked by Caroline A. Kennard, an American campaigner for women’s education, to explain his views, Darwin responded as follows:

The question to which you refer is a very difficult one. I have discussed it briefly in my ‘Descent of Man’. I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually; & there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance, (if I understand these laws rightly) in their becoming the intellectual equals of man. On the other hand there is some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages) men & women were equal in this respect, & this wd. greatly favour their recovering this equality. But to do this, as I believe, women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.

Kennard responded that to all intents and purposes, women were already breadwinners; that they often had to earn money to put their brothers through college, and that the mental exercise of running a household was fully equivalent to that of paid employment.

No doubt many reasons underlie Darwin’s conservative yet courteous and somewhat provisional account of the female intellect. If Darwin’s account seems contradictory, and at odds with his personal knowledge of talented and intelligent women, it’s perhaps because he believed in the plasticity of evolving species much more than we do now. Nowadays it’s axiomatic in some circles that humans have not been civilised for long enough for much impact to have been made on our Stone-Age genes, so that arguments about gender difference and gender equality are often based on assumption about prehistory, awkwardly enough. But for Darwin, the conditions of  his own era were having an immediate impact, and if conditions changed, so might the biological restraints on the sexes. He was conservative in his views and not sure that would be a good thing; but he didn’t think it was an impossible thing. He supported his undoubtedly traditional views with the logic of inheritance as he saw it, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d got that right. Perhaps that accounts for his generally genial and supportive relationships with women.

Useful links:

Darwin Correspondence Project: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/

Darwin Correspondence Project, gender pages: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwin-and-gender-intro

On Kennard: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/namedef-2660

Descent of man, 1st ed., vol. 2: http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F937.2&viewtype=text&pageseq=1

GoldieBlox & the Three Blog Posts, Pt. 1

Editor’s Note: this is the first of three blog posts about GoldieBlox, the new set of “Engineering Toys for Girls.” See the second (next) post here, and the third (final?) post here.

If you find yourself addicted to reading Gap Junction Science coverage of Science! Toys! for! Girls!, check out our older post about Lego Lady Scientist.

Bringing future scientists (boys and girls) together through play

Rose Sokol-Chang

When boys and girls who are into science turn into women and men who practice science, they don’t have separate sets of tools they each use to do their research. What if we designed toys with this in mind, not silo-ed based on a notion of how girls and boys are different, but instead with a focus on what skills they are mutually interested in developing?

Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, particularly engineering. In the United States, women make up around 18% of college graduates in engineering, and the number drops to around 13% for those employed in the engineering profession. In the STM disciplines, excluding engineering, around 43% of the college graduates are women; though the number still drops when considering the STM workplace, which is made up of around 37% women. (All of these stats are based on the 2010 figures from the National Science Foundation, 2013.)

Created with data from National Science Foundation, 2013. (Note: Psychology and Social Sciences are not included in STEM, but are included in this figure as they are traditionally the sciences women most flock to).

In an effort to rectify this disparity, there have been many efforts to engage girls and women in STEM disciplines. Recently, a well intentioned product line called “GoldieBlox” (http://www.goldieblox.com/) aims to get girls interested in engineering through toys marketed directly toward them*. Unlike the Lego Friends® line, they are intentionally not pink and purple. Arguably there are benefits towards this product marketing, yet, products like this seem to miss the mark on at least two points.

The first is that there are many toys marketed towards boys that girls could be, and often are, quite interested in. Blocks, and specifically Lego®, are prime examples. Lego® has perfected their interlocking blocks over the past 60+ years, and has developed a ridiculously diverse fan base – from kids, to adults who construct entire cities, to a movement to introduce students to robotics (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ideas-innovations/How-Lego-Is-Constructing-the-Next-Generation-of-Engineers-204137981.html). In many cases, Lego®  essentially serves as a ‘gateway’ toy to STEM disciplines. (Editor’s Note: I love the concept of ‘gateway toys’ to STEM disciplines. I wish I had thought of it and am contemplating pretending I did.) (Now I’m done contemplating and I feel like it would be justified, but unethical, so I’ll have to credit that sneaky Sokol Chang for writing it first.) This is a great example of a toy that doesn’t need to be redesigned to appeal to children, but could stand some alterations to appeal specifically to girls.

See, this girl LOVES Lego!

Which brings me to the second problem with designing toys for one gender. Doing so shapes the opinions of both girls and boys regardless of which is engaged with the toy. I’ve recently started paying attention to my son’s Lego® figures, no doubt in part because of Sari van Anders’ blog post about the Female Scientist figure. (Editor’s Note: Don’t mind me; I’m just wiping tears of pride from my eyes.) For all of the Lego® sets my son owns, the figures are all men. When looking through the Lego City® sets online, female figures appear in supporting roles (i.e. town shoppers) but not as the central figure. In the four City Space® sets, all of the astronauts are male. In the coast guard sets, the truck drivers and scuba divers are male. If using masculine pronouns shapes our imaginations about the roles that women and men do hold (Hyde, 1984), then how could  seeing only male coast guard, firefighter, police, and other characters shape the ways we are thinking about the roles that women and men can hold? If girls don’t see themselves reflected in the toy, they will be less interested; if boys don’t see females in their sets, their imaginations about the limits of men and women will no doubt be affected. (Editor’s non-sarcastic note: This is a really good point that often gets lost… it’s not just girls who need to see girls and women represented. We need our boys and men to see a world that involves females too.)

Luckily, we have the “Hollywood Starlet” figure so that I can exchange the head and she can become a scuba diver or a firefighter. (Editor’s Note: Look at that lipstick! Femme Firefighter pride! IT’S ABOUT TIME!!!)

To be fair, Lego has created some professional female figures in their one-off Minifigures line, including a Scientist and a Surgeon. After 60 years, why shouldn’t Lego work on incorporating them into the sets they sell that depict people in their everyday lives and jobs?

There are some toys that appeal more to boys, on average, than girls and vice versa. My buddy Andrew loves Bakugan and I just don’t get the allure. (Editor’s Note: I had to look up Bakugan, and then my brain exploded even though my browser couldn’t display all the media.) Yet, there are many toys that could be just as appealing to boys and girls, and those are generally the toys that work on skills each develop throughout the school years – including Lego® and other toys that develop skills for our future engineers, and computer, natural, and social scientists. I’d like to think that in conjunction to developing these skills, children will be allowed to work on their emotional development by working with other kids, regardless of the gender of their playmates.

When I spoke to my son about this post, I said “women can do these things your Lego® men do, right?” and he said “yeah, except they can’t pee standing up.” ‘Nuff said.

*Note to commercial producers – when marketing said products, how about not adapting a song with original lyrics “Girls, to do the dishes; Girls, to clean up my room….” to empower girls to develop science skills?

Editor’s Note: The author wanted to make clear that she likes the Beastie Boys, but that the original lyrics are problematic and that there are plenty of girl power songs, many by women, that could have been just as catchy.

References

Hyde, J. S. (1984). Children’s understanding of sexist language. Developmental Psychology, 20, 697-706. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.20.4.697

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2013).Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2013. Special Report NSF 13-304. Arlington, VA. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/

GoldieBlox & the Three Blog Posts, Pt. 2

Editor’s Note: this is the second of three blog posts about GoldieBlox, the new set of “Engineering Toys for Girls.” See the first (previous) post here, and the third (final?) post here.

If you find yourself addicted to reading Gap Junction Science coverage of Science! Toys! for! Girls!, check out our older post about Lego Lady Scientist.

Maureen Linkster

So a few self-disclosures: I am not the parent of a daughter. I teach philosophy and women and gender studies. I grew up without sisters and with four brothers. I was not a big fan of pink and most of my toys were hand me downs from my brothers.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the criticisms aimed at ‘GoldieBlox’ but ultimately, I find them unconvincing. What I have heard both formally and informally (academic criticisms within gender studies, conversations with colleagues, blogs) is best summed up by this post on the ‘Feminist Philosophy’ forum:

Hmmm……nice idea, for the very wealthy who have ‘no time’ or patience to sit with their daughters and create their own stuff from recycled materials………But the excessive extent of this ‘showcase’ with the excess of pinks, pastels and plastics are just too saccharin, and has presented a total fantasy world that doesn’t feel accessible to most little girls ANYWHERE!

Editor’s Note: It’s not UNpink.

What I glean from the criticisms is the following:

  1. Why not develop ‘life hacks’ with your daughters by using things you find around the house (or at a maker space) to engineer cool gadgets and funky solutions to everyday problems. Why feed the capitalist beast?
  2. Why this ridiculous regurgitation of pink and purple for a toy that is designed to break stereotypes about “girls’ toys”?
  3. Why market to girls specifically thereby reinforcing the gender binary?

Here is why I am not convinced:

  1. There is a lot of data supporting the idea that girls (K-8th grade) do better (both cognitively and affectively) in STEM classes and projects where the focus is on social collaboration, real world problems, and highlighting links between verbal skills – creativity – STEM. A recent survey of the literature concluded, “Developing projects and toolkits that are tailored specifically to girls, and which fit within girls’ current social framework, may be one way to engage and excite girls’ interest in STEM fields in addition to more accurately conveying the possible depth and diversity of STEM applications” (Milam, J., 2012. “Girls and STEM Education: A Literature Review”, Ga. Tech).
  2. Criticisms of Goldieblox seem to me like the criticisms of those who wish (and even claim) to be ‘colorblind.’ “Why do we have to keep recreating the binary? Can’t we move past ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ dichotomies?” I share this wish/hope/goal and actively work toward challenging the binaries in my scholarship and teaching. However, I also recognize that my research and my classroom are different spaces with a different rhetorical focus as compared with commercial advertising, marketing, and mass consumerism. While I hope that my efforts and the even greater efforts of other feminist, womanist, gender activists and scholars have an impact on those spaces and that rhetoric, I still recognize that there is a vast divide. I also know that rhetoric impacts children much earlier than gender research and scholarship. I also know that this is true even when a child’s parents/caregivers work against the influence of that rhetoric. The divide is out there and any Woman’s Studies student who spends an hour at a major retail outlet (Editor’s Note: Um, an hour? I’m going to place my bets on 5 min!!) can tell you how significantly different boys and girls clothing, toys, games are marketed. It saturates the culture. So, any five year old who has not grown up in a media-free, commercial-free environment in the U.S. will tell you which toys are for girls and which are for boys. They will also be adept at picking out women and men when they meet lots of different people. They have formed gender schemas. It helps them navigate the world and speak the language fluently.
  3. And yes, even at five some of them will resist the rigidity of these schemas with some internal will that is often heroic and some will resist with the help of supportive adults. But it is still an act of resistance, which means that the thing resisted is understood. For the vast majority, they will find themselves within the dualities and try to make sense of them. For some of the privileged, they will have the opportunity to interrogate these binaries through education, literature, film, and a supportive network of educators, mentors, and friends. Some will ‘grow up’ or ‘mature’ and develop a critical lens like Adam Yauch, a childhood friend of mine, (I realize I am name dropping here but he does make the point with his own life) and co-author of the “Girls” song used in the GoldieBlox ad. Adam was raised by pretty progressive parents in Brooklyn New York, itself a pretty cosmopolitan and politically active place during the 1960s and 70s and early 80s. He went to a progressive private school and was taught by proponents of feminism and multiculturalism and was surrounded by artists, activists, scholars, and community leaders. Yet the original lyrics to ‘Girls’ and a few other Beastie Boys songs are blatantly sexist. Is this because he and the other members of the group were unable to develop a critical gender lens? I would argue that it was not that at all. Instead they were trying on an adolescent persona that was not encouraged in their homes or schools (directly) but permeated the culture. They rebelled and tried on what it would be like to be a punk and a thug and a big assed loud mouth. Their rebellion was public (and highly profitable) but they also later (not too much later in fact) publicly apologized on numerous occasions for their sexist lyrics and stereotypical adolescent male behavior. (Editor’s Note: Like in their later lyrics “To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” Sure Shot, the Beastie Boys.) They matured. The point being that children and adolescents will try on various aspects of the culture even when there is a lot of room to resist the culture. This is even more so when the culture is embraced and supported by surrounding adults. Conclusion: Pink is out there in full force and to get noticed, GoldieBlox went pink. This will appeal to many girls, bore some girls, and most likely not grab the attention of most boys. But as a non-pink buying girl, it would have been nice to visit girl friends who had GoldieBlox at their house rather than Barbie. Finally, I also know lots of parents now who are not very wealthy by any means and who don’t have the time to devote to creative recycled projects with their kids because they are working two jobs, trying to finish school, and managing domestic responsibilities. Not always and not in every way, but buying a toy (and giving your kid the feeling that she is not so unlike other kids) is sometimes just what she needs and wants. Sometimes too this is also what the parent wants and needs, especially the working class and poor parent.

(Editor’s Note: OMG OMG OMG I am now two degrees of separation from the Beastie Boys.)

GoldieBlox & the Three Blog Posts, Pt. 3

Editor’s Note: this is the third of three blog posts about GoldieBlox, the new set of “Engineering Toys for Girls.” See the first (previous) post here, and the second (previous) post here.

If you find yourself addicted to reading Gap Junction Science coverage of Science! Toys! for! Girls!, check out our older post about Lego Lady Scientist.

However you feel, GoldieBlox is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. First there was the fundraising campaign on Kickstarter that raised almost twice its goal. Now there is the actual toy for sale, with a Rube Goldberg-y Beastie Boys-y advertising campaign. And, now, there is apparently a legal suit pending FROM GOLDIEBLOX (!) to preemptively make the legal case that the song can be used (as parody, since the new version is so clearly pro-girl, but the original version was clearly sexist) (and there are more complications since Adam Yauch, one of the original Beastie Boys who died recently, willed that none of his artistic output could be used for advertising). Anyway, many of love GoldieBlox (and the ads) and many of feel conflicted. Our first two posts (here and here) show the differences of viewpoints. So, because I’m like that, I asked some friends and colleagues who are feminist scientists and science-y feminists what they thought. I gave them no more than 1-5 min to craft their responses. Here they are!

Jodi Pawluski, Behavioral Neuroscientist:

I love the song and the obstacle course thing (mind blanking for proper term), and idea BUT I really wish toys were just gender neutral. This could also go for a lot of kids clothes. Why on earth are there boot cut fleece pants for 18m old girls and truck shirts only in the ‘boy’ section? Seriously!

Meredith Chivers, Sex Researcher and Psychophysiologist:

Ok so I just watched the GoldieBlox vid again. My thoughts: it’s an improvement but the packaging still features a skinny Aryan girl (blonde & blue eyed — yes there is irony in that coming from a blonde & blue eyed woman) and the toy is still in pastel colours. So it bugs me.

Ok — the toy. So I like the idea in theory, but then there’s the packaging & colour. And that this experience of creating machines is being marketed instead of kids discovering engineering on their own. But maybe this is a step in between — bridging between the pink-princess-frill-o-thon tiresomeness and girls creating their own stuff without the Goldieblox seal of approval?

And the BBs — well that’s just hilarious because it’s the BBs. I like the song reinvention more than the toy actually but that’s the magic of marketing. GoldieBlox is about purchasing a dose of feminism but perhaps not about cultivating STEM from an early age. But maybe, just maybe, it might give girls like me another choice in the toy aisle. But still, and perhaps this is me just romanticizing my childhood, there was something even cooler about making kinetic machines and building stuff on my own…about making mazes for my hamsters out of shoe boxes, building stuff in my dad’s workshop. I had an engineer for a dad who believed that girls could do anything so I never felt gender stereotyped boundaries. Will a toy like GoldieBlox change the minds of parents who hold more gender stereotyped ideas? I don’t know.

So, in summary, it’s an improvement but I would be even more excited if it weren’t pastel colours and didn’t feature a white blonde bombshell kid on the packaging.

(Editor’s Note: The advertising campaign only shows the blonde girl. I should point out that a follow-up GoldieBlox toy has an African American princess girl on the cover alongside the blonde blue-eyed girl.)

Alyson Ford, Astronomer:

About GoldieBlox… my initial reaction was “those toys look awesome but why do they have to be those horrendous colours?” I don’t like how those colours make them a “girl” toy but I suppose at least some parents may buy them for their daughters because it is a “girl” toy. I never got Legos as presents; perhaps I would have had they been available in purples and pinks (like the new Lego friends series… shudder)

Jennifer Cummings, Behavioral Neuroscientist:

I love it! I saw the original video for GoldieBlox and loved the idea. Fingers crossed it gets out there for others to see, too!

I love the idea of encouraging girls to explore and play with what are typically considered to be ‘male’ toys, that they aren’t limited by their sex to play with ‘girl’ toys (although I do understand sex diffs in children’s play and that they gravitate towards dolls and stuffed animal anyways). I just want girls to know that they can do whatever they want to, that they can excel in any field, as long as they work hard. Does that begin with building toys? Who knows, but I’m willing to try!

Jacinta Beehner, Biological Anthropologist:

I think it depends on what “world” we are in. Maybe gender-neutral engineering toys would work in some places, but something like this might actually work better in other places where parents (and kids!) may already be so gendered they won’t think to buy (or play with) an engineering toy unless the box is pink. It could be a start in the right direction if the goal is developing skills in physics (or engineering or whatever).

Ryan Burns, Electrical Engineer:

I thought the commercial was great, then the art on the box seemed concerning, and finally the contraption itself left me with the question: wtf are these toys and what do they do exactly?

Also, didn’t the lyrics say all their stuff is pink, and then they’re selling a pink product at the end?

Carolyn Phillips, Computational Scientist:

I agree with Jodi (Rube Goldberg Device, Jodi), that I also wish that the toys were more gender neutral. I feel like I grew up with a number of gender neutral toys (Legos, Playmobil) although they weren’t, as they only had a single, if any, female characters. (As an aside, I tended to like creating stories. My brother tended to like building contraptions. We played together wonderfully.) When I got older I had a number of gender neutral toys that I requested, such as robot toys, science kits, etc. Young kids however, seem developmentally very into investigating gender and defining what goes with each gender. So maybe a targeted toy and campaign toward children at that age to say “this is also for girls” is developmentally appropriate?

I feel like I should add that while, I never felt like I was not my biological sex, I did not feel comfortable with the expectations on my gender ever and actively chose against them. Which may be why I became a woman in the STEM fields. Which is to say, I am not/was not the target audience for this sort of campaign, and that is okay.

Editor’s Note: You KNOW you have an opinion about GoldieBlox. The toy and campaign are like anchovies: no one is neutral. Give us your thoughts! Not on anchovies because they are objectively delicious!