Culture and Science: The Impact on Women (with HIV)

science and society

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We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. Carl Sagan

The way that people experience science in school is often not aligned with the true purpose of science.  As a Biology teacher in the South Bronx, I interact with students who perceive that science is, like history, a collection of facts rather than a way of thinking, like math.  Because introductory science courses are often designed to teach basic vocabulary and concepts, students often miss out on the experience of science as inquiry-based research.  Typically, those who do scientific research have advanced degrees in the subject area.  The societal result is a misunderstanding of the masses who think that science is more black and white than it really is.

In theory, the culture of science is pure, objective, investigative research about natural phenomena.  In reality, scientists are subjective because of the culture of society and are heavily influenced by the drive to create new technology or medical advances.  Science has in some ways been hijacked by societal pressures to arrive at conclusions more quickly and develop new gadgets or drugs even faster for consumers.  The role of societal culture in science is to provide an ethical compass for new scientific research.

Epstein argues that science is to blame for some of the issues surrounding the research and development for AZT, a drug used to treat HIV/AIDS.  He critiques the “Federal Death Administration” (FDA) on the basis of their insistence on using randomized control trials (where two “blind” groups do not know whether they receive treatment or a placebo in order to more scientifically assess the impact of a drug like AZT) as a crucial part of developing anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV-positive people.  However, the FDA is not a scientific entity; it is a government structure that was established to regulate science inquiry into consumer products.  In this case, I agree with Epstein:  the FDA failed to be flexible enough to allow for the ethical research of AZT – people with HIV should not have had restricted access to care.  But the failure was not in science; the issue was more a result of the restrictions put upon scientists working on that project.

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.  Isaac Asimov

Epstein further criticizes the restriction of childbearing-age women from scientific studies.  (The intent was to protect potential fetuses from the possible side effects of new drugs.)  Women are far less likely to be involved in scientific careers, so the decision to exclude them from scientific trials was most likely made by male scientists and/or regulating bodies.  Because recent trends suggest that women have a growing incidence of HIV, it is clearly important to involve women in studies about new treatments and to focus research on accommodating the unique needs of the female body.  Historically HIV/AIDS has been attributed to MSM (males engaging in homosexual behavior).  However there is an increasing number of women who are testing positive as a result of heterosexual behavior.  Black women and Latina groups are disproportionately affected.  The new “Fourth wave” of HIV is more correlated to age, class, and geography rather than to sexual identity or behavior.

Susser engages her readers in understanding the epidemiology of HIV in Southern Africa.  Women’s access to preventative methods (female condoms) and treatment (ARVs – antiretroviral drugs) is severely limited among the very same population in which HIV incidence is growing.  If women were more involved in doing research and engaging in interventions, one could assume that more women would have access to the fruits of scientific labor.  However women are far less likely to be involved in science research.

The science research community strives to keep up with societal ideals, such as equality for women, but (like society) often falls short in achieving true equality.  As science makes dramatic headway into researching the epidemiology and treatment of new diseases, it is difficult for society to keep up.  The most obvious way for society to keep up with science is to improve science education in high school.  However, the United States lags behind other countries in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject training.

male and female brains

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Despite feminist movements over the past decades, women still comprise very little of the population involved in STEM careers.   The inequality begins early on in education.  On the SAT tests, boys do better on the Math section.  AP Exams in Math, Computer Science, and Engineering are more successful for high school boys.  Some people argue that women are simply wired differently neurologically and therefore have strengths other than those necessary for STEM careers.  Research shows that there are some differences in male and female information processing, but that cognitive test results tend to be equivalent.  Considering traditional feminine vs. masculine stereotypes and the male-dominated lingo in many cultures, it should not be a shock that there are more males in certain professional environments.  There are significantly less science and engineering doctorates awarded to women.  Once women earn a PhD in Science, they are less likely to become full professors.  Black and Hispanic women are even less likely than Caucasian women to excel in post doctorate work.  Even as they engage in post doctorate scientific research, such as at the NIH, women are less likely to receive project funding and earn lower salaries than their male counterparts.  This disparity is not limited to the fields of science and engineering; women experience less success in other professions as well.

Even assuming equal social roles, women have less economic and political power because of differences in employment opportunities.  Link and Phelan attributes the fundamental cause of disease as socioeconomic status.  With less power, women are more likely to be impacted by disease on the basis of income and class (which are directly correlated to employment).   Thus, one of the groups (women) most likely to be affected by HIV/AIDS are the ones least likely in a position to do something about it.

So, what’s a woman to do?  Gender roles have changed in the past 50 years, but they are not changing as drastically as many feminists desire.  As much as gender equality in traditional health roles is important, it’s time for women to use their strengths to enact change instead of waiting for it to happen.  Women as storytellers and community activists have experienced success in social and public health movements.  Research shows that participatory, community-based health programs are more adaptable to unique cultural needs which can accommodate male-dominated cultures much more easily than top-down interventions.  Susser’s book correctly focuses on the women in South Africa who work as activists who lead grassroots movements to raise awareness and access to information about HIV/AIDS and female condoms.

As some women work to break through the glass ceiling of science research, it’s crucial that other women engage in alternate routes to achieve the education and care needed to stem and stop the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS among the female populous in some countries.

Today’s society needs the science information to understand and treat HIV/AIDS.  The science community could take a leaf or two from societal feminist movements.  The tension between society and science could be much more productive.   As the role of women in science and society becomes more equitable, women’s health care, including preventative materials and treatment options for HIV/AIDS, will also grow.  It’s time to encourage women to engage in activism for other women.  And it’s about time that career conferencing in high school focused on adolescent females in science.

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Posted in Assignment 5

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