Textbook Sexism: Sexism in College Biology

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Textbook Sexism: Sexism in College Biology

by Eileen Van Tassell

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 1, January/February 1980, p. 16–19

Among almost 207,500 science and engineering Ph.D.s in this country, 93.4 percent are white and 92.1 percent are male. In the biological sciences, women hold approximately 11 percent of the doctorates. This has a profound effect on science and on what we perceive as the truth about ourselves as male or female human beings. Sexism in biology textbooks, the research from which these materials are derived, and the way teachers present biology have a special impact on students. In most cases my comments are based on books I have used or that have been sent to me for examination, reports and discussions with students of both sexes (but mostly women), interactions with my colleagues at Michigan State University, and an examination of books used in a variety of other courses. 

My interest in the question of the influence of male overrepresentation in the biological sciences arose during a classroom discussion of how to tell the male from the female skeleton in the lab. Most of my students were convinced that sexing skeletons was a relatively easy task and that major differences existed, especially in the hip and shoulder bones. Males were more certain of this than females, but both sexes challenged me to demonstrate these presumed differences. Since I didn’t know how to tell, and since I had promised to teach them what they wanted to learn, I began searching the literature for differences in skeletal structure. I was amazed to discover that this is not at all a simple task and that the widely held notion that females have broader hips than males is a myth, at least with respect to skeletons. In reality, there is no single measure which will separate all female from all male skeletons, and the major discriminating measure is a ratio of hip width to length, measured from three points. This ratio has a 15 percent higher average in females, but it varies considerably with race, so that there is much more overlap when all humans are pooled. 

Further interest in the field of sex differences led to a much more critical examination of the literature on sex differences, especially as they are presented to undergraduate students. Several points of interest emerged during this study. First, warnings as to limitations of primary research findings are often dropped as the studies are presented to the undergraduate student in text materials. This practice leads to an exaggerated list of sex differences, and a number of statements which are patently false as written, for instance, the common statement that females have wider hips than males. Less common, but equally untrue, is the assertion the females have different arm angulation due to differences in the skeletal shoulder girdle. In fact, these bones cannot be used, even by experienced anatomists to sex skeletons. Of course, it is well known that exercise of the upper body can influence the development and strength of the bones and ligaments, and that females are usually denied this experience, but this is hardly a biological phenomenon. Textbooks virtually ignore sex similarities in favor of sex difference. Of course, there is no such field as sex similarities, only of sex differences, an interesting reflection on biology itself. 

Another major bias lies in the area of selective reporting. Male weaknesses are minimized or ignored, female strengths are similarly downplayed or absent. Male weakness is minimized, for example, in the treatment in college-level genetics texts of x-linked disease. Many of these recessive genes result in tragic diseases and early death for little boys. However, only 2 of the estimated 100 such traits are mentioned in most texts: classical Hemophilia, which is extremely rare and red-green color blindness, which is relatively innocuous. But what of the most common form of muscular dystrophy (Duchenne type)? We are all familiar with the annual “telethon” to raise money for the unfortunate victims, but how many people are aware that this is a disease of little boys? Or that agammaglobulinemia, which requires total isolation in a “bubble” away from any possible pathogen, is also sex-linked? Or microcephaly, etc.? Fortunately, most of these diseases are rare, but, taken together, they may help explain the higher mortality rates of males at every age. One recent author (Singer, Human Genetics, 1978) wishes it weren’t so. On p.34, he writes, 

But arguments from population genetics and recent advances in our understanding of the genetics of sex chromosomes have made it seem unlikely that men are at much of a disadvantage simply because of possessing a single x chromosome … In normal women, only one x chromosome is genetically active in each cell, the x chromosome is nonfunctional. 

There are two errors here. First, it has not been proven that the “inactive” x chromosome is completely nonfunctional. Second, the inactive x chromosome is randomly distributed in each stemline of cells. Thus harmful recessive genes on one x chromosome are still compensated for by the active gene on the other x chromosome in adjacent cells. 

The fact that “strength” has a variety of manifestations in humans is usually overlooked or reduced to muscular strength, in which males, on the average, excel. For instance, in his Human Genetics (second edition, 1975, p.182), Albert Winchester writes, 

In many forms of life male strength is favored when there are battles for possession of the females. The winners have multiple matings, whereas the losers are denied mates. In primitive human societies such struggles may have been a factor. Also, the strength of a man in overpowering a reluctant female may have aided in selection of strength in a male and a corresponding reduced strength in the female. 

Apart from the obvious sexism in justifying rape, and the fact that there is no evidence for this speculation, the subtle implication here is that males are stronger than females in all ways and at all times. 

The facts contradict this negative image of “the weaker sex.” Not only do females have fewer genetic diseases but they also seem to be constitutionally stronger. Many more diseases of pathogenic origin occur more often in men than in women than is true of the reverse, and men suffer twice as many respiratory and circulation complications after surgery than do women. Birth defects are more common in male infants. But even in the area of muscular strength, differences are less clear than we have been led to believe. Pound for pound, for instance, women’s leg muscles are stronger, on the average, than men’s. (Most authors, however, speak only of upper-body musculature.) Much is made of the greater fat deposits in women, but no mention appears of its survival value in preventing brain damage under conditions of starvation. The argument here is not to disparage males, but rather to be honest and fair to all students regarding the strengths and weaknesses of both sexes. 

Factual errors can be corrected, but even worse is the disturbing frequency of insulting comments in many texts with respect to women and female biology. We knew this was common in gynecology texts, but biology has its share too. Volpe, for example, in the BSCS series Human Heredity and Birth Defects, remarks on p. 117, that, “The old tiresome cliche of the male about ‘crazy, mixed-up women, now merits attention.” In discussing the triplet code for amino acids later in the same text, Volpe explains: “Let us say that T in the second triplet is substituted for A, so that the triplet reads TTC instead of ATC, which would specify ‘A’ instead of T. The word would now be “RAPE” instead of “RIPE”.” (As one of my students, a male, snickered, “I get it, ripe to rape, ha, ha.” It was this comment which drew my attention to the example.) 

Returning to Winchester’s Human Genetics, p.30, the caption beneath R.J. Blandau’s beautiful photograph of ovulation reads: “Ovulation. Like a pimple bursting to release its pus, a Graafian follicle of the ovary bursts and liberates its contents including the egg which can be seen near the end of the erupting material.” The analogy is repeated in the text. How are young women to feel about their bodies after reading this disgusting comparison? (This is really an awful book, but it is widely used.) A few pages later: “Parthenogenesis in human females has often been claimed, but these are mostly just efforts to avoid acknowledgement of sexual relations.” (My emphasis.) Note the contrast here between the use of the word “often” in this unsupported assertion about female behavior versus the word “rare” to describe verifiable x-linked diseases in men. Predictably, Winchester sees no need to mention social factors, such as ignorance, or the fear of punishment due to a double standard of sexual behavior which might cause a woman to deny intimate sexual contact. 

Many feminists hoped that after a flurry of critical writings, textbooks would begin to change. We have been disappointed even in these minimal hopes. A case in point is a 1978 text by Sam Singer, Human Genetics. On p.72 we are told that the full-page illustration is a ” … Portrait of people of various human races … ” The “people” are all males. Several pages later, we find the seemingly inevitable photograph of a bare-breasted Tahitian woman peering out behind an uplifted arm which covers most of her face. Her face is pictured separately next to her other photo. Books illustrating human evolution also frequently show all-male assemblages marching across time, and where females are included, they are either doing nothing or are engaged only in food preparation or child care. 

Sexism is also illustrated by the speed with which research supporting existing stereotypes is incorporated into text materials in contrast to the inordinate caution in including data which is contradictory to the stereotypes. For instance, Martha McClintock’s paper on menstrual synchrony in college women which suggests that college women, like mice, unconsciously respond to odor molecules, has appeared in recent medical and psychology texts, although the work included women taking birth control pills and has not been replicated. In contrast, studies indicating hormone cycling in normal males are rarely mentioned. Sometimes, if a stereotype is not supported by the data, the researchers will keep looking. In Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Ethnology, the author reports that male and female subjects responded similarly to a crying baby, as measured by pupillary dilation: “Sex differences were not clearcut in the small sample of the study, and further work is being done.” (My emphasis.) I’m sure that some sex difference will be found, if they have to work on it for the next ten years. 

Virtually any study, no matter how trivial, which shows a sex difference receives space in our most prestigious journals. A clear example of this is a paper published in Science in 1976 entitled, “Carrying Behavior in Humans: Analysis of Sex Differences.” The two-page paper, complete with an illustration and statistical as well as cross-cultural comparisons discovered that schoolgirls carry their books near their chests, while schoolboys carry them near their sides. Based on their research, the authors conclude: 

(i) We canot discount the possibility of a genetic predisposition for females to assume more closed positions than males. (ii) Because of sex differences in hip width (sic), hip shelf, and lower arm angulation between physically mature males and females, some carrying positions are probably more comfortable for one sex than for the other. (iii) Interacting with these relatively fixed sexual differences is learning. 

Thus does a body of scientific “evidence” accumulate. Young women in one of my classes read this paper and found it comical that apparently the authors failed to realize that most young women experience embarrassment during adolescence. Furthermore, young boys often make rude and insulting comments about women’s bodies and stare at their breasts. Shielding oneself with what one is carrying seems pretty normal, but hardly genetic. Not surprisingly, this genetic “sex difference” was greatest between 10th and 12th grades, rising rapidly after the 6th grade. 

This last case raises another important question for educators. Why is it so extremely rare for scientists to discuss the obvious sexism of the culture in their work? Surely such interpretations must enter their minds as they think about their conclusions, but there seems to be an unwritten taboo here. Perhaps they unconsciously want to become the center of controversy and attention (I can almost hear them at professional meetings, gleefully telling one another how much “feminists” object to their “findings” — only they will probably call us “libbers”.) 

Other primary research is more dangerous. Rape of females is frequently justified as “natural” by applying the concept to lower animals such as ducks (“Sociobiology of Rape in Mallards: Responses of the Mated Male,” Science, Vol. 197). In the same volume we learn that even worms commit rape (“Homosexual Rape and Sexual Selection in Acanthocephalan Worms”). This nonsense reduces rape to a biological phenomenon and effectively removes it from the realm of willful choice or morality. How convenient. I suppose that before long biology students will learn from their texts that rape is normal and frequent in the animal “Kingdom.” This treatment also reinforces the myth that rape is a crime of passion or high sex drive, whereas data gathered from the convicted rapists themselves indicate very clearly that the vast majority of rapes arise from a need to dominate, humiliate or degrade women, not from sexual desire. 

Young people entering university studies hoping to find a more enlightened approach are consistently disappointed. Sexual stereotypes are often reinforced by male professors. Young women in my classes often report instances of insulting and degrading jokes and disparaging comments made about women by their teachers. One professor went so far as to use a cartoon from Playboy magazine to illustrate a final exam question. When I confronted him about the sexism of this action he denied that anyone in the class had been offended. 

Finally, there is the attitude encountered frequently in academic circles when faced with feminist criticism of, ‘yes, yes, we know all about bad science, what can you tell us that is new?” This attitude implies that all that needs to be done is to know that sexism exists in order to eliminate it. The examples I have cited are far from an exhaustive search, but I think they illustrate clearly that the value-free image of science is a myth. All of us need to stop using terms such as non-sexist or non-racist, because these terms imply a finished product, a goal already achieved. Instead we must become and use the terms “anti-racist” and “anti-sexist”. These phrases at least admit the reality which is apparent daily and move us to action, toward eliminating, not only the overt manifestations, but the underlying causes as well. Too often scientists give only lip-service to their printed caveats, but in their daily lives, speak and behave in ways which contradict the objective appearances given by their frequent warnings to others. To hear professors (usually male) say laughingly, “I suppose this is sexist, but… “, is definitely not what I mean by becoming anti-sexist. In fact such behavior trivializes feminist concerns and makes women the butt of yet another round of ridicule. Added to the multitude of negative messages and denials of reality bombarding women daily from the larger society, it is no surprise that women often lose their sense of humor and become paranoid or embittered. This is especially true, I feel, of younger women beginning their scholarly careers, because, while oppressive attitudes are still common, many of their teachers are behaving as if the war is already over. In reality, it is just beginning, and it is past time to face this fact honestly.


For more information on sexism and science see: 

Evelyn Reed, Sexism and Science, Pathfinder Press, 1978. 

Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, University of California Press, 1978. 

Jessie Barnard, “Sex Differences: An Overview” in Module 26 of MSS Modular Publications, Inc., New York, NY 1974. 

Signs, Winter 78-79, issue on Women and Science Science for the People magazine. 

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will, Bantam, 1975.

Eileen Van Tassel teaches in the Natural Science Department of Michigan State University and is active in Women’s Studies, Science for the People, and the women’s self-defense and anti-rape movement. She has developed and taught two courses on sex-similarities and sex-differences. This article is reprinted from the Fall 1979 issue of Politics and Education and is based on a talk she gave as part of a conference on “Women and Science” at Wesleyan University.  

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