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Also relevant for: Chemistry Teaching

Course: Chemistry
Group of courses: Mathematics, Natural Sciences


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Course objectives:

Students should gain an overview of the significance of gender relations for the development of chemistry and of the findings of gender studies in chemistry. They should question chemistry's claim to gender neutrality and generally place the findings on gender and chemistry within gender research on science and technology. They should also be taught to understand gender analyses as "eye-openers" for integrating chemistry into contexts of action in society.

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Teaching content/subject-specific gender studies content:

Gender studies in chemistry enquires into the interactions between gender relations and the development of chemistry. It focuses on the question of how gender relations take effect on knowledge and the products manufactured in chemistry, and on the research and development directions that chemistry takes. Looking at the category of gender focuses attention on the societal context in which chemical investigations and developments take place, and calls into question the self-image of chemistry still particularly prevalent in the scientific community as an exact and objective science (Weller 1995, Weller 2004, Weller 2006). 

Unlike other scientific and technical disciplines, gender studies in chemistry is still very young. Nevertheless, there are studies that highlight the significance of gender relations, initially mainly on the basis of selected examples. According to the system of "Women in Science", "Science of Gender" and "Gender in Science" generally established in gender studies in science and technology, these studies can be divided into the categories of "Women in Chemistry" and "Gender in Chemistry".

  • Women in Chemistry

    • The focus here is on the analysis of women in chemistry. There are two separate strands. One analyses women's participation in the various fields and hierarchy levels of chemistry from the perspective of achieving equal opportunities. One of the best detailed studies on women's situation in chemistry at university and professional levels was carried out in the late 1980s by Roloff (1989). A wide range of data is now available on this issue, which show a clear discrepancy between students and professionals/academics: whereas women make up approximately 50% of chemistry students at the beginning of degree courses, this figure is starkly reduced in the course of chemists' academic careers up to PhD level ("leaking pipeline"). Entry into professional life is also still a greater hurdle for female chemists: studies show considerable income differences between men and women, and male domination of higher professional positions, providing evidence of the still far from equal opportunities in professional life (GDCh 2004, Könekamp 2004). Studies and case examples of the link between the culture of chemistry and the habitus of chemists suggest possible explanations for this situation. They have established, for example, that the image of a "successful chemist" within the discourses of chemistry is implicitly associated with practical skills and intuition, which are coded as male in this context (Nägele 1998). The second strand is made up of studies identifying previously invisible women and their contribution to the development of chemistry as a science, frequently from a historical-biographical perspective. This search for women's contributions to the development of chemistry is particularly prevalent in the history of science. The results can be divided into two areas. The first is women's direct contributions to the development of chemical knowledge. This sheds light on female chemists who have previously been neglected or undervalued by historical research and on women as "unknown helpers", who took on important tasks in the implementation of experiments, for example. The second area points out women's less direct contributions to the development of chemistry, particularly in multiplying and disseminating theoretical and experimental discourses, i.e. didactical work. Although these women did not directly influence chemistry itself, they played a key role in training chemical skills and thus indirectly in the development of the subject (Szász 1997, Wiemeler 2001).

  • Gender in Chemistry

    • This field looks into how gender relations are inscribed in the type of questions asked, the theoretical concepts and the design of the products and processes of chemistry. Taking gender mainstreaming into account, the question of how the products of chemistry affect gender relations is also currently gaining significance. For example in thermodynamics, an area between physics and chemistry, Heinsohn has highlighted structural connections between the scientific controversy over atomistic-mechanistic and energetic understandings of nature and the discourse on women's access to universities (Heinsohn 2005). This study established that the rejection of women studying at universities was founded on "scientific" arguments that intellectual work was harmful to women because of the higher energy consumption of reproduction and therefore studying was a waste of energy for women. Other studies have analysed the problems and solutions in chemistry, formulated as gender-neutral, for gaps and bias in dealing with gender-coded areas such as production and reproduction. Scholars have studied examples of societal attitudes to materials regarding the influential relationship between the reproduction, private consumption and in this context the use of materials an area conceived of as "female" and the development, design and manufacture of materials an area conceived as "male" (Weller 1995, Weller 2004). The findings indicate, firstly, that there is significantly less knowledge on the use of materials and their behaviour embedded in everyday products than on their manufacture. This is due to the problem of transferability of knowledge on the characteristics of materials, gained in chemical experiments under laboratory conditions, to the behaviour of these materials in the real world. In chemistry's attitude to materials, use can be defined as a knowledge gap, thus establishing a decontextualised view of problems, which frequently neglects the social context of dealing with materials. This gap can be understood as an expression of gender hierarchies, with a female-coded area of private consumption, in which the use and application of products and the materials that form them takes place and which is thus viewed as a separate and less valuable area (Weller 1995, Weller 2004, Weller 2006). Secondly, studies have been carried out on the politics and safety of chemicals and their consequences for gender relations (Buchholz 2004, Buchholz 2006). This has shown that regulations on chemical safety and new developments on chemicals policy have barely looked into the question of differences between the genders in exposure and the consequences of contact with harmful materials, for example in setting maximum limits. These debates and studies indicate problematical basic assumptions about an "average person", who is implicitly conceived as male, healthy, young, employed and not pregnant. This means that the life situations of other groups, e. g. children, women or unhealthy males, are not taken into account adequately. It also means that evaluations of materials risks only marginally integrate exposure situations that are not based on working contexts.

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Integration of gender studies content into the curriculum:

The following possibilities are conceivable. These proposals bear in mind that chemistry degrees have not previously addressed the significance of gender, and therefore offer initial "anchor points".

"Gender studies in chemistry" in optional subjects such as "Philosophy of natural science" or "History of natural science", focusing in particular on the significance of gender relations for the development of chemical knowledge and on women's contributions to chemistry from a historical-biographical perspective.
"Gender and chemistry"
 as part of seminars/lectures dealing with the subject areas of toxicology and occupational safety. The focus of this module should be on chemicals policy and safety and gender, and on androcentric basic assumptions of evaluation and their consequences for gender relations.
"Gender relations in chemistry" as part of introductory seminars/lectures on the professional fields and practice of chemists. The focus should be on discussing gender inequality with regard to the aim of equal opportunities in chemistry.
"Gender studies in chemistry" as part of gender studies courses on gender studies in science and technology, enquiring into what chemistry has in common with other scientific and technical disciplines, and what sets it apart.

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Degree Stage:

The above content should be integrated into Bachelor's degrees, particularly in the fifth and sixth semester. It should ideally be dealt with in more detail in the subsequent Master's degree courses.



Provided by
Prof. Dr. Ines Weller
Research Centre for Sustainability