The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Banu Subramaniam on Race, Gender, and Sexuality in a Globalized World

Banu Sabramaniam Delivers Plenary Lecture
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Banu Sabramaniam

We think of science as objective and that there is an issue of women and minorities in science...I would argue that that history of white male-dominated science has had all kinds of consequences for the kind of knowledge that science has produced about the world.

Attribution
Banu Subramaniam, Professor and Chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department

Race, gender, and sexuality are found all around us, yet these are concepts to which some of us give little thought. Where do these come from? In what scientific evidence (or lack thereof) are they based? How do they affect the ways in which we engage with the sciences? 

For October 1st's Plenary Lecture at the Campus Center, Banu Subramaniam, Professor and Chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, set out to explore these questions. Subramaniam’s work spans both the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences, showing that these are not separate, disconnected entities but rather inherently intertwined.

“I hope all of you will see the importance of interdisciplinary work and the kinds of doors and windows that this work opens up,” said Subramaniam.  

Subramaniam began the lecture by briefly quizzing audience members: When was first female crash-test dummy was implemented in design studies? Surprisingly, the answer is: not until 2006—long after dummies (which had been designed based on the average male height and weight) were initially used to test the safety features of cars, planes, and other technologies. As a result, these features do an excellent job of protecting those whose bodies are similar to the dummies that informed these designs. We have known for a long time that collision-related impacts can be significantly more deadly for smaller-bodied individuals, but where has their representation been? 

This type of gender-informed design can be dangerous—not only physically, but intellectually and emotionally as well. Ever since Carl Linnaeus, considered the “Father of Taxonomy,” introduced his system for biological classification in 1735, we have used his binomial system to categorize individuals of species primarily by genus (based on its “male” reproductive organs) and secondarily by order (based on its “female” organs). Botany, zoology, and other facets of the natural world do not, however, follow this clear-cut, complementary, hierarchical, and patriarchal way of being; it is rather the imposition of a westernized, binary-gendered system of classifying perceived human differences that has resulted in us seeing the biological world in this way. 

Assigning binary genders to individuals pervades our society and does not stop with just living beings; we look at inanimate objects, such as keys, electric cables, and plugs, with the labels “male” and “female." While these systems of thinking are everywhere, and we often give little thought to these assigned labels, they have weighty implications for how we see ourselves and others within society.

“These words are deeply political and are connected to long histories of power hierarchies,” said Subramaniam. 

“We think of science as objective and, for the most part, we say that there is an issue of women in science and minorities in science, and that science is much too white and western,” explained Subramaniam. “But I would argue that that history of white male-dominated science has had all kinds of consequences for the kind of knowledge that science has produced about the world.” In this way, race, gender, and sexuality are social and political constructs, informed by our cultural perceptions. 

Rather than thinking about these entities as separate and individualized, it is essential that we look at how these intersect with the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. How has gender shaped scientific methods, systems, and claims? How do the constructs of race and so-called foreignness affect our overlapping perceptions and language surrounding immigration and invasive plant and animal species? 

These are questions that must be considered as we move forward in an increasingly globalized world where lines become blurred and labels become less relevant. “If we step back and think interdisciplinarily about most fields, especially the sciences, one understands how science and politics, and how nature and culture, are so interconnected with us,” said Subramaniam. “I think it allows us to do better science, become better biologists, physicists, and geologists, because we understand the power of words, we understand where our theories might be coming from, and it allows us to really check the cultural biases that we bring into the scientific world.”