Science Through Her Looking Glass
by Heather Menzies
By the title of this article, I want to suggest a double meaning. Looking glass connotes not only a scientific instrument--a microscope or telescope--through which one looks to see things scientifically, it is also a mirror which reflects back the image and aspect of the viewer. This implies that what you see and discover through the looking glass of science is also a reflection of how you see the world, which depends on who and where you are.
What I want to suggest is that the science women have done is a reflection of women as a social group and of the social and historical circumstances of women's lives. No single woman constitutes a pattern, nor should we expect all women to fit a pattern. But we can learn a lot by contemplating the source of the reflective differences.
Women scientists tend to have atypical career paths and eclectic, often inter-disciplinary backgrounds. They might go into an applied science area where getting into science seems easier, and move laterally from there. They might interrupt careers to follow husbands, and take their science wherever they can find it. They might also interrupt their full-time career work to have children and stay home with them during their infancy, or juggle their work between lab, daycare centre and home. Or they might simply be less readily recognized for what they are doing and thus not drawn into the centers of scientific inquiry.
What does this imply in terms of the looking glass? That women bring to their work unique advantages because of their inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional social experience and even their tendency to be relegated to the margins of science. In a survey of Canadian women scientists and their work, Ann Innis Dagg and Rachelle Sender Beauchamp confirmed that a sizeable proportion-45%--of women natural scientists in Canada feel that being a woman affects the science they do (1). I'd like to suggest that women's eclectic background and often marginal position in science uniquely positions them to pursue their science less at the centre of organisms, for example, but more in the border regions between organisms and between individual organisms and their environment. Furthermore, this has led them to some important, path-breaking science.