Science

Behind The Sex Imbalance In The Sciences

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Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz portrait on Mexico 1000 pesos (1985) banknote fragment, Mexican philosopher, composer, and poet.

Just one year ago, James Damore, the software engineer who wrote the infamous Google memo on women which argued that the low number of women in technical positions within the company was a result of biological differences instead of discrimination, was fired. Since the publication of this memo, many people have had much to say on the topic, most invariably polarized over two issues: first, the original thesis he maintained that men are psychologically more suited to work in technology than women, and second, that this discussion was precluded by his firing in the growing push for diversity of everything, except for the diversity of opinions. Damore has an interesting perspective to throw into the discussion on the sex-imbalance in tech, even if you disagree with him. But he certainly is not the first to address sex-inequality in the sciences or tech. 

That honor goes back several hundred years to a Mexican nun by the name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1648-1695) who faced the culture whereby females were event violently dissuaded from entering into these or any public fields. Eager to study the sciences, Sor Juana pleaded with her mother to allow her to go to the university in Mexico City where she could dress in men’s clothes and attend the university. Her mother would not hear of it. Sor Juana’s reprieve from marriage and entry into the world of the sciences, literature and philosophy was through the convent of Saint Paula of Saint Jerome in Mexico city where, at the age of 21, she enrolled and would stay for the next 25 years of her life.

Sor Juana excelled at the observation and analysis of natural phenomena and science and she was determined to extend her intellectual skills to the study of theology, the “queen of the sciences.”  Sor Juana’s belief in the capacity of women to compete with men allowed her intellect to thrive amidst a library of over 14,000 books, but it also was a source of great distress in her personal life. Her belief in her own intelligence challenged the social norms of the time which held a general disbelief in women’s intellectual capacities. Yet, she lived with a persistent internal conflict as a result of this disconnect between her own abilities as a thinker and writer and the role culture had carved out for women. Sor Juana embraced her personal inclination and drive from childhood to learn and study, and the social tension that resulted. Despite this, she was close friends with scientists like Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora and other grand poets and philosophers of her day with whom she had great conversations over topics central to the Enlightenment. 

After having written a criticism of a sermon by the Portuguese Jesuit priest Antonio de Vieyra in 1690, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’ entered into the public debate about the place of the female sex within intellectual life. The Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez (1637-1699), was so impressed with Sor Juana’s letter that he not only had it printed, but he responded to Sor Juana praising her work. Still he made the suggestion that she limit herself to theological discussions and avoid secular matters, signing the letter “Sor Filotea de la Cruz” (Sister Filotea). Sor Juana’s lengthy reply is one of the most important feminist pieces of writing which is a defense of women’s rights to study secular and religious texts employing a scientific line of debate.

Sor Juana’s “Reply to Sor Filotea” (1691) addresses her intellect while also explaining that these endowments are a gift from God and that she is fulfilling her duty to God by using them. Intellectual growth through reason was a personal experiment for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in this response, writing in a tone which seems self-effacing on the surface, but in reality is a larger critique of Sor Filotea and the patriarchal structure in which “she” exists: “With so much greater reason, Must not I too be silent? Not like the Saint, out of humility, but because in reality I know nothing I can say that is worthy of you.”  Sor Juana points to the importance of erudition while flaunting her intellectual capabilities. She demonstrates how the kitchen is not only the domestic space of the female at the time, but is also the scientific laboratory of women and the space of their intellectual growth:

I see that an egg becomes solid and fries in lard or oil, while, on the other hand, it dissolves in syrup. I see that in order to keep sugar in a liquid state it suffices to add to it a very small part of water mixed with quince or another sour fruit. I see that an egg’s yoke and white have such opposite characteristics that when one or the other of them is mixed with sugar each one separately works well, but when they are combined they do not. Because I don’t want to bore you with which cold facts I’m mentioning them only to give you a full account of my nature—and I think this probably has made you laugh. Nevertheless, my Lady, what can we women possibly know other than kitchen philosophies? Lupercio Leonardo  said it quite well: one can philosophize well while preparing dinner. When I see these trivialities I often say this: if Aristotle had cooked stews he would have written a lot more. 

Arguing for reason, Sor Juana compares the scientific query into the chemistry of the kitchen to the larger search for scientific truths, inverting the ostensible powerlessness of the domestic sphere by suggesting that the kitchen augments, not diminishes, intellectual production.  For daring to stand up to the misogynist policies of the Church, Sor Juana was officially censured, no longer allowed to publish her work. It has been assumed that the Church also asked that she give away her books, but the inventory of her possessions lists books, writings and artworks. Sor Juana had a long and successful career as an essayist, playwright, and poet and she was able to contest the patriarchy of her time through promoting the core values of the  Enlightenment— justice and egalitarianism.

Perhaps it is time that Damore’s ideas be allowed, at the very least to be heard and considered, on the question of sex-inequality today if only to engage in scientific inquiry together?

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