The Pervasive Problem of Gender-Biased Language

On Monday, two pages that I follow, Exploring Masculinities and The Sociological Cinema, shared a recent article written for The Atlantic, titled “Females’ Eggs May Actively Select Certain Sperm: New evidence challenges the oldest law of genetics.” The argument comes from one Joe Nadeau of the Pacific Northwest Research Institute.
My first reaction to this was, wait a minute, Emily Martin wrote about this nearly 30-years ago, in her 1991 piece, “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” My hackles were raised, and rightly so, as it turns out.
In her original research, Martin explains how the rhetoric of science is, as in every other field, hetero-sexist and patriarchal, favoring masculine actions, descriptions, and even metaphors over neutral or female ones. As a basic example, in the process of fertilization, the sperm “penetrates” the egg, because the sperm is male and must therefore be the active agent in this process. As Martin points out, however, a number of studies at the time were suggesting that the egg might actually attract the sperm, pulling it in as it were, rather than being penetrated by it. And yet, the masculine-favored metaphors persisted (and still do).
Now, here we are, 26 years later, and both the researcher (Nadeau) and the science writer for The Atlantic, are ignoring Martin’s work? Why? Well, someone, seemingly Carrie Arnold, the science writer reporting on Nadeau’s work, cites Martin’s piece, but either completely misunderstands it or intentionally misrepresents it:
“This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. ‘The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively “is transported” … along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined,’ and invariably active,’ she wrote.”
This is all the acknowledgment Martin gets, and it completely misses her point. This is not what Martin argued about the science* of the situation, but about the language* used to describe it! Now, I don’t know why Arnold included this portion of Martin’s 16-page piece, whether it was presented in Nadeau’s work in the same way, or whether Arnold found it on her own and thought she was covering an extra base (superficially). It seems clear to me, though, that this is at BEST lazy research on one or both of their parts, and at worst, egregious misrepresentation and dismissal of original work in order to advance Nadeau’s own theory (which is simply Martin 2.0).
I couldn’t access Nadeau’s piece (it is published in GENETICS 207.2 (October 2017), but if anyone has access to it and wants to see if he cites/references Martin at all and, if so, in what way, that would be great. Or send it to me. I may very well be missing something (perhaps he did treat Martin fairly in the original, and Arnold glosses it — I don’t know), but at the moment I’m simply fuming.
Update: I did get access to the primary study. Martin is not cited in the research (probably because she is an anthropologist, not a geneticist; is not a great excuse, but that’s another problem with “hard” science / “soft” science bias. This, too, is often characterized by gender. People view certain sciences as more “feminine” and others as more “masculine,” so that the actual numbers of people of a certain gender working in or pursuing that field are dramatically skewed); funny that his research still uses the gendered terminology, though, such as “sperm penetrating,” when his research seems to suggest it is a more magnetic (for lack of a better term) relationship between sperm and egg, not an active/passive one. But that begs the question, why was Martin added by the Atlantic writer, and did she simply misunderstand (or poorly phrase her explanation of–) Martin’s work?

One thought on “The Pervasive Problem of Gender-Biased Language

  1. So…I don’t know enough about the actual science, nor about the articles themselves, to truly comment on those things. However, reading what you’ve written here also has my hackles raised. Two years ago, I read Come As You Are by Emily Nagowski, which talks a lot about how sex (even in science) uses predominantly male-oriented language, and the work she’s done to counter that. So much of what we see in science (well, and history, and language, and…) is skewed one direction and I feel like we’re just on the cusp of truly understanding this. But some of these things – like the idea of the sperm penetrating the egg – is so built into our cultural knowledge, taught to us from an early age, that it makes it difficult to change minds on a larger scale platform. Maybe by making changes, slowly over time, perhaps we can make longterm changes to the broader perspective in our culture, and spread that outward into other areas.

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