By Laura Marble
Thursday, June 8, 2000
When women enter a scientific profession, be it engineering, medical research or computer technology, the discipline's agenda shifts, either slightly or dramatically.
NEW YORK-- Professors at Carnegie Mellon University changed the way they teach computer science. Influenced by research about how women viewed computers as tools, the professors changed what had been their emphasis on technical prowess and began focusing on how computers can be used to improve lives.
When Carnegie Mellon remodeled its computer science curriculum, the prestigious university was able to increase the enrollment of females to 38 percent in a field where females are often poorly represented.
This is one example of how women are changing the face of science, the theme of a forum on women in science and technology held here as part of the United Nation's special session on women's rights.
Panelists came to this global gathering from as far as Egypt and India to tell their experiences how well their countries are living up to the expectations to bring a female perspective to all policies and programs, including those related to science and technology.
This vision, that women approach science differently, often with pragmatic results, was echoed throughout the discussion.
Irene Muloni, manager of information technology for the Uganda Electricity Board, said that the progress of developing countries depends on harnessing natural laws and science into humanitarian efforts.
Research into breast cancer and other types of cancer experienced by women could benefit by more women entering the field, added Donna Dean, a senior advisor at the National Institutes of Health.
And Panelist Indira Nair, vice provost for education at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of a book, "Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering," said women scientists are bringing the spirit of caring that scientific research has been missing.
Nair used a historical example to show that a women's perspective can overturn even theories that are cornerstones of scientific thought. Until the early 1970s, she said, psychologists did not challenge noted education theorist Jean Piaget's stages of morality that posited that an acute sense of justice was the highest point of moral development.
Carol Gilligan questioned this emphasis on justice, Nair said. Her experience told her that acute caring indicated high morality better than blind justice. Pouring over Piaget's work, she discovered that women were not included in the pool of subjects. She incorporated women into her research and in "Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women's Thinking to Psychological Theory and Education" concluded that acute empathy--relatedness and response to others--was at least an equal indicator of morality.
Panelist Farkhonda Hassan, a geology professor from Cairo, summed by encouraging others to ask some of the questions she is asking back home. "If there were more women scientists, would it lead to different research priorities?" asked Hassan. "Would it lead to a different kind of science?"