Wisconsin’s Feminist Biology Fellowship To Thwart Gender-Biased Science

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The taxpayer-funded University of Wisconsin–Madison is now offering a pioneering postdoctoral fellowship in feminist biology.

“The program is the first in the nation — and probably the world,” said Janet Hyde, a women’s studies and psychology professor who is also the director of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on Gender & Women.

The feminist biology postdoctoral fellowship will focus on gender-related research and attempt to educate young research scientists on the perils of gender bias.

According to Hyde, feminist biology is necessary because biology remains rife with research biases and patriarchal points of view which have prevented women from excelling in the field.

“To me, one of the best examples is the use of male-only samples, both in human and animal research, and then generalizing the findings to all members of the species,” the women’s studies professor told Isthmus, an alternative weekly newspaper out of Madison. “It’s not a good scientific practice, but it has been accepted for decades. The result is that some findings may not apply to women.”

Hyde noted that Wisconsin-Madison has “lots of women earning Ph.D.s.”

She also suggested that there are numerous areas of biology in which feminist biology can contribute.

“Even on the cellular level, the biology of sex determination in the embryo was initially misunderstood because scientists assumed that the Y chromosome would have a leadership role,” she said in a school press release.

Caitilyn Allen, a plant pathologist at the Big Ten school, suggested that feminist biology is necessary because of things that happened well over a century ago. She cited, for example, the 19th-century belief among “highly respected mainstream scientists” that women are not as intelligent as men are because of their smaller brains.

“Based on this premise, scientists went looking for a scientific explanation,” Allen told Isthmus. “They found that women had smaller brains than men, which seemed to explain it.”

She noted that the apparent differences disappear when data accounts for body size.

Allen also noted the more recent belief that biological differences cause men to outperform women on standardized tests.

“It appears the math test score difference resulted from socialization, not hormones or brain structure,” the plant pathologist told Isthmus.

The lucky recipient of Wisconsin-Madison’s first feminist biology fellowship is Caroline VanSickle, who is currently completing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.

VanSickle’s two-year fellowship starts in September. It is endowed by the gender and women’s studies department thanks to a generous gift from the estate of Gertraude Wittig, a German-born scientist who spent her professional life as a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist and then as a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

Wittig has no connection to Wisconsin-Madison other than her bequest.

In her feminist biology research, VanSickle will focus on changes in the pelvis shapes of female South African human ancestors from 1.5 million to 3 million years ago. This research is expected to provide insight into changes in childbirth anatomy over the course of human evolution.

VanSickle will also teach courses in gender and biology, including a new course in the exciting new area of feminist biology.

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