gender and doing science and all that

kkaye at kkaye at
Sun Sep 4 12:10:47 EST 1994

Dr. Norton's question about method vs. investigation is a good one (I think I
was the poster whom she cited as saying you're a real scientist if you do

I spend most of my time investigating; I refine methods when and if I need to
because the statu-quo method has too high an error margin or because it is
based on a misunderstood or misused application of genuinely basic knowledge.
In my view, methodological development as a goal in itself is a marginal task
for anyone who is called to investigative science. On the other hand, if
refining methodology is what you're good at or what you're paid for or both,
fair enough. People who are good investigators of theory need to consult people
who are perhaps better or more au fait with methodology, to make sure that the
methods the investigators are using do in fact test the hypotheses the
investigators wish to test. IMHO the investigator *ought* to know that anyway,
but it's easier said than done.

Think of it this way: we all know, these days, that the users of a system or of
a given set of tools are actually the best-informed about the properties of
that system or toolbox. Someone outside the system can make useful suggestions
about modifications, and perhaps make prototype tools or create prototype
system properties, but it still requires a skilled person who knows _why_ the
toolbox is what it is to _test_ the prototypes. It is entirely possible for a
skilled user to get led down the garden path of testing prototypes and
mistaking that process for investigative science - which is the testing of
_principles_ rather than the testing of _methods per se_.

Testing and refining methodology is also emotionally and professionally safer
than taking on investigative and/or theory-based science, IMHO. The
grant-awarding system and the funding from industry makes this very much the
case (and no, I'm not trying to start that damned old debate about basic vs
applied science, PLEASE, I think that in many ways it's a false distinction).

Doing science is very much like carrying on any love affair: there has to be a
lot of give and take and attention to detail and judgement and re-assessment of
the situation. Admin duties take away your concentration....

By the way, admin gets passed on to whoever does it well - and often to women -
because management courses define people who pay attention to the smooth
running of the ship as people with a 'low task orientation', and rewards are
meant to be paid to people who are 'goal and task oriented'. Oxford is a
strange place in that for 700 years the teachers/lecturers (the dons) have also
been the administrators and tutors and pastoral care people and financial
wizards of their institutions (the Colleges) and of the University as well. Now
that we are being infiltrated by professional managers, who know sod-all about
education and less about managing and leading people, the people-skills are
being leached out of the human resource pool in the academic context. There is
a great deal of resistance to this, thank God, but it does fuel the gender
debate in science in the UK. On the other hand, men who have prided themselves
on being decent human beings towards their students and colleagues, male and
female, are being told that some of their skills are 'not task and goal
oriented' and that this is to be reflected in the financial structuring of the
research base: they are, rightly, bloody angry at this notion if not yet angry

To my North American colleagues, I would say to your committees that they have
to take this issue of defining reward and task-orientation on board. Say it
straight and unresentfully; people who don't pull their administrative weight
are penalising and disadvantaging their colleagues, and that this is simply not
on. What would your committees say if you said that, only that, and then sat
back and shut up, refused to be drawn further?


infiltrate and subvert where necessary!

katherine kaye (dr.)
School of Geography
University of Oxford
kkaye at

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