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Biology

Course: Biology
Group of courses: Mathematics, Natural Sciences

Teaching/course objectives:

The course objectives include teaching the basic theories, central concepts and methodologies of women's and gender studies in biology, and enabling students to reflect on biological theories and the conditions and processes of biological knowledge production from a gender perspective in a critical manner. 
Students should:

  • Recognise the significance of the category of gender for biology
  • Be familiarised with studies from a gender perspective showing the different levels of interaction between biology and gender relations
  • Learn about the various epistemological positions of women's and gender studies and biology
  • Be able to carry out interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work
  • Be able to reflect biological teaching content in their own study of biology from the gender perspective.

Teaching content/subject-specific gender studies content:

Women's and gender studies have established that gender is a central category in biology and provides key impetus for the development of gender-inclusive biology. A central issue for women's and gender studies in biology is the interactive relationship between biology and the system of gender in society. Some studies on biology from a gender perspective focus on how societal and cultural images of gender are inscribed into biological knowledge and naturalised. Another important aspect is how biological knowledge takes part in the production, legitimation, maintenance and alteration of gender hierarchies in society. Biological knowledge is thus part of gender politics. 

The category of gender constitutes an analytical category on a structural, individual and symbolic level in biological studies from a gender perspective. Analyses address:

  • The situation of women in biology at university and professional level. These studies include: biographical research, statistical surveys on the percentage of women in various areas of professional biology and university status groups, analyses of the professional habitus of the biologist and the habitus of biographical sub-disciplines, the subtle exclusion mechanisms for (aspiring) female biologists and discrimination and unequal treatment of men and women for example in resource distribution, peer review proceedings and recruitment.
  • Gender inscriptions in biological content, particularly in knowledge production on human, animal and plant sexes. This includes gender-based analyses of biological and medical knowledge production on apparent differences between men's and women's brains, intelligence, cognitive and physical characteristics and sex hormones, and gender studies on evolutionary biology, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. Biological representations of animals and plants also reveal influences of socio-cultural images of gender and gender relations. These areas assume a biological determination of gender differences and include androcentric perspectives, which are subject to critical analysis.
  • Gender as a structuring element of biology. This area focuses on the biological paradigms, preconceptions, the taught production of gender and the symbolic level of gender differences. Studies analyse dichotomies in biology such as body/mind, nature/culture, passivity/activity which are gender-coded and arranged in a hierarchical order. The former items are marked as female and the latter are coded as male and of higher status. This structure is expressed in the subtexts of biological narratives, be it the male mind that discovers the secrets of passive female nature, the heroic sperm that overcomes all adverse circumstances and beats its opponents to awaken the egg cell with its kiss, or androgen hormones that prompt the further development of the brain from female to male during the development of the embryo. These gender-coded dichotomies constitute guiding principles that influence biologists' perspectives and values. They have proved to be constitutive elements of biological thought, setting a framework in which scientific questions are posed, explanations accepted and answers found.
  • The question of objectivity and epistemological positions in biology and women's and gender studies. This takes a critical view of the positivistic self-image of biology as an objective and value-neutral discipline that provides empirical factual knowledge and in which sex and gender are only significant as objects of biological study. According to this understanding, biology describes nature exclusively on the basis of rational considerations, without social, cultural or political influences. Many studies from a gender perspective, in contrast, understand biology as a societal undertaking and the knowledge it produces as a product shaped by society and culture. These studies are based on a social-constructivist position, taking the constructivist contribution of biologists into account. Scholars do not understand the inclusion of social, cultural, political and personal factors in analyses as an accusation of 'poor science' but as an improved form of objectivity. 

The above approaches of women's and gender studies in biology do not involve the instruments of natural science. Instead, they apply the methods of the social sciences and cultural studies, further developing these methods for the issues in question. These include biographical research and methods from the history of science, sociology and philosophy, particularly discourse and language analysis, interview studies and statistical surveys and laboratory studies. This has led to the establishment of a field of research and study referred to as Gender & Science Studies, which has developed from interdisciplinary to cross-disciplinary work. 

Women's and gender studies in biology is one area of the relatively young fields of Gender & Science Studies. It has become established at German universities since the 1990s and boasts lively discussions and ongoing knowledge development. Current studies, for example, apply approaches from Queer Theory in biology, highlighting heteronormative perspectives in knowledge production. Increasingly, the links between the category of gender and other lines of difference, such as race and ethnicity, are viewed in biology under the term 'intersectionality'.

Forms of integration of gender studies content into the curriculum:

As women's and gender studies enable students to carry out critical reflection of their own degree subject using the example of gender as a category, and are also relevant across the discipline, at least one module on "Gender and biology" should be set up for all sub-sections of biology. However, we recommend offering two modules made up of two parts each (basic and advanced module). 

The basic module could be an introduction to women's and gender studies in biology. A seminar or lecture should cover the basic theories and methods of women's and gender studies in biology, going into more depth on examples of biological sub-disciplines. An accompanying tutorial should teach students how to work with texts and lead them to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. This also offers an opportunity to discuss individual analyses dealt with in the seminar or lecture at greater depth. 

The advanced module could cover the four levels of women's and gender studies in more detailed seminars. The following seminars should be offered: "Gender in animals and plants", "Gender and human biology", which would be particularly suitable for human biology degrees, and a seminar on "Reflecting biological experiments", which would be particularly important for universities with teacher-training programmes. Students should cover two of these elements in the advanced module. 

  • "Gender in animals and plants" should deal with the interconnection of zoological and botanical knowledge production with sociocultural images of gender. The following specific subjects can be covered: primatology as politics by other means; the mirroring of gender relations in zoological and botanical systems; the meaning of the term 'mother plant'; metaphors in biology; hetero-, homo-, inter- and transsexuality in animals.
  • "Gender and human biology" could include gender-sensitive analyses of (allegedly) biologically determined sex differences regarding intelligence, the brain, gender roles, sexual and reproductive behaviour, hormones and chromosomes and the subjects of inter- and transsexuality and hominid evolution.
  • In "Reflecting biological experiments" students could study the specific production of scientific facts in everyday laboratory practice. In this empirical practice seminar, they should receive introductions to Gender & Science Studies, the laboratory studies developed in this sub-discipline and theories on scientific experimentation. They should then carry out their own participating observations in biological laboratories and evaluate these in writing.

Degree stage:

The courses should be offered at the beginning of Bachelor's degrees, i.e. in the second or third semester.

Keywords:

Biology, Engineering Science, International Aquatic Tropical Ecology, Water, Chemistry, Mikrobiology, Biological Diversity and Ecology, Life Science, Ecological Impact Assessment, Environmental Sciences, Computational Life Science, Anthropology, Organismic Biology, Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Ecology, Advanced Materials