Over the past few years, we’ve heard a great deal about women in environmental science, and about the need to get more women into environmental science, with the clear implication that women bring something to research and policy on the environment that men don’t bring.
We’ve been informed of “5 Women Environmental Leaders You Should Know” and invited to “Meet 4 Inspirational Women Working in Environmental Science Today.” Articles that profile such scientists abound, almost always including a discussion of the (allegedly unique) “challenges” the women faced in a male-dominated field, with exhortations about how such challenges can be overcome, almost always through state and global initiatives that benefit women by providing them with money and opportunities not available to their male colleagues.
The alleged distinctiveness of women’s scientific perspective is a never-challenged assumption in many policy documents and political proclamations. An article outlining why “[w]e need to build more networks of women in science” predictably informs readers that women are “far more nuanced in [their] approach to just about anything, including science,” which is why “environmental science can only become stronger if we have more women in research, because [women] often bring the human angle into the science.” The male angle, apparently, is somewhat less than human. Keystone Environmental, a Canadian company that helps businesses comply with environmental regulations, echoes the mantra, saying that “there is a need for more women and girls” in the field.
Getting the female perspective.
World agencies and organizations are responding to such unabashedly partisan (and evidence-lite) claims with initiatives to promote opportunities for women. The United Nations has declared February 11 to be International Day of Women and Girls in Science; and its 2019 theme made the point even sharper: “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth.” The website admits that despite committed effort in “inspiring and engaging women and girls in science,” they “continue to be excluded from participating fully.” They offer little to corroborate this claim, but we are assured that “long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science-related fields.” The idea that women might be somewhat less interested than men in certain types of scientific study, including some areas of environmental science, is never considered.
Citing the principle that “[w]e cannot afford to deprive ourselves of the talents of half of humanity,” UNESCO funds lavish awards for female scientists around the world. Its webpage reveals that “Since its creation in 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme has distinguished 112 eminent women at the height of their scientific careers and supported more than 3,300 promising young women scientists from over 110 countries.” Participating nations have followed suit with state-funded programs, scholarship, and grants. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council outlines a variety of monetary and other incentives designed to “increase the participation of women in science and engineering, and to provide role models.”
Beyond the feel-good hoopla, these costly female-only programs are based on a set of untested assumptions about women and the environment that are as bigoted and misguided as they are widely accepted, if sometimes unconsciously. For decades, radical feminist ideologues have claimed that both women and nature are oppressed and have been made to serve men’s needs. Men’s sacrifices and good-faith efforts to build societies in which women and children could flourish are never acknowledged. Although not all female scientists are feminist ideologues, a great many have been influenced by feminist doctrine.
A specific branch of feminist theory called ecofeminism alleges that only the full liberation of women from male control can likewise liberate and “save” the environment. According to this theory, the idea of the natural world as a resource to be exploited for human benefit partakes of the same worldview that sees women as the property of men to be exploited for male pleasure.
Ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant, Mary Daly, and Vandana Shiva observe that nature in western culture is frequently represented as an untamed female entity, requiring male control. They claim that western men have tended to impose hierarchical structures to bind the feminine in all its forms and deny the interconnections between human and non-human nature through actions, resulting in horrific environmental damage.
Women, on the other hand, have a different (and, from their perspective, superior) appreciation of the intimate connections between all living things, partly because of their sensitive, nurturing natures and their role as child bearers. French feminist theorist Francoise d’Eaubonne, for one, insisted that women would create a much-needed ecological revolution to bring about justice for all marginalized and exploited beings.
Inherently male and rapacious?
Such feminist perspectives are at their root confessedly anti-male, anti-western, anti-industrial, and anti-capitalist. At their most radical, they reject all exploration, development, and utilization of the earth for the purposes of energy and wealth creation. Activities such as drilling, mining, extraction, and the construction of pipelines are seen as inherently male and rapacious. Some feminists even reject what they refer to as “western science,” which they claim is merely a projection of the flawed masculine way of perceiving nature. Though most feminist scientists and scientific agencies do not express such an extreme position, many of them actively seek to minimize the achievements of male scientists in favor of female, place women in visible positions of leadership mainly because of their sex, and transfer resources and authority to women on the assumption that women care more about children, and thus the future, and therefore make more compassionate stewards of the environment.
In a recent example of such a female-centric view, CNN reported on an all-female crew that is “sailing the world” to research plastic pollution in sea water. The clear implication of the story was that women who exclude men from their research expeditions deserve public admiration and applause for their daring. I found it impossible to imagine men posturing and patting themselves on the back for doing anything as men, and expecting praise for it. “The days feel longer at sea. You really have an opportunity to connect with nature,” claims an enthusiastic female voice at the video clip’s opening. Soon we see the smiling face of a young woman, Emily Penn, the co-founder of Exxpedition (note the reference to women’s two X chromosomes), a series of all-women teams sailing the world to study plastics and toxins. Here we have a made-for-United Nations feminist fantasy.
Why are men excluded from these crews, and how is such exclusion a laudable scientific development? It’s never made clear, but it is suggested that women have a deeper passion for the environment and, relatedly, that women are more seriously impacted by ocean pollution, especially by the micro-plastics under study. These plastics, we learn, break down in the ocean, bind with toxic chemicals, and are ultimately ingested by human beings, where they mimic the body’s hormones and interrupt its chemical messages. “I realized that being a woman, having those chemicals inside my body during pregnancy would be really bad news,” Penn asserts, explaining why she came to see ocean plastics as a “female-centered” issue.
Are men not affected by the chemical-plastic stew? Are their bodies invulnerable to endocrine disruption and its implications for reproductive health? Penn doesn’t say, and doesn’t seem to care. In this case and elsewhere, the frequently heard claim that women are more empathetic and bring a human perspective to science seems to apply only to issues affecting women. Where men are concerned, feminist compassion quickly runs dry.
The story, furthermore, implies that Penn and her fellow female researchers are breaking new ground in analyzing this problem. No mention is made of the very significant work already being done by male scientists not only in highlighting the issue but actually seeking to solve it. We hear nothing, for instance, of Boyan Slat, the Dutch inventor who, at age 18 in 2013, founded The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation involving some 90 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers who have developed systems to remove plastic from the world’s oceans before it breaks down into micro-plastics.
It’s hard to imagine young Boyan making a self-satisfied show of his maleness, deliberately choosing an all-male crew, or claiming that he is interested in plastics because they disproportionately affect the male sex. It would be bizarre if he did. So why is the inverse claim—that women should and do care particularly about women—seen as admirable? In my opinion, it is evidence of a deplorable narcissism.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging women, at least those with the necessary talent and dedication, to seek out careers in environmental science. But a preoccupation with women’s allegedly greater care for our world distorts our understanding of the real (and fake) environmental challenges we face; and the frequently-heard claim that we need to access all the world’s available talent is belied by the focus on women only (how many talented young men will thereby be neglected?).
Even more seriously, the idea that there is something wrong with male perspectives and “western” science is alarmingly regressive, grounded in female supremacist fantasies and long-standing anti-male resentment. These feminist biases are unscientific to the core, and their impact on environmental research and policy are likely to be wasteful and counter-productive, if not downright disastrous, in the long term.