Science, Now + Beyond, Interviews

Feminist Biology: An interview with Caroline VanSickle

As a biological anthropologist, Dr. VanSickle applies feminist theory to her research on human evolution.

Here at The Tempest, we’ve discussed sexism in science and, as a result, the fact that there are fewer women in science than men. But as our representation in the sciences increases, we’ve started bringing in new perspectives. That’s exactly what Dr. Caroline VanSickle, visiting professor of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, does with her research. As a biological anthropologist, Dr. VanSickle applies a feminist lens to her research on human evolution. The Tempest had a chance to sit down and delve into how she does this.

The Tempest: Could you give us a summary of what you do?

Dr. Caroline VanSickle: I study human evolution, which can tell us about our evolutionary course and past behaviors. It’s a challenging science, and sometimes researchers draw conclusions that aren’t well supported by evidence. For example, we are pretty bad at determining the sex of some fossil species, let alone identifying behavioral differences between the sexes, yet there are many hypotheses about what male and female hominins were doing.

I focus on how we identify sex and related behaviors in ancient human relatives. This means I look at fossilized pelvises, because in modern humans, that’s the best way we have to estimate the sex of a skeleton. This is largely due to humans giving birth to large-brained babies while still being able to walk bipedally (on two feet). But the earlier in the fossil record we get, it gets harder to distinguish sex. Think about Lucy, who was a biped but not large-brained, so she might not have the same adaptations that we have today. I explore when our techniques work and when we need to develop new ones.

A reconstruction of Lucy.
A reconstruction of Lucy.

What led you to study this through a feminist lens?

Back in my undergrad days, I was taking a fascinating human evolution class. I loved thinking about what we can tell from bones — what these creatures were doing and how they were living. But I learned that the story was male-dominated: “we became bipedal so that men could use tools and go hunting and do all these things and that’s how we got bigger brains”, while women were just there. That bothered me. So, when I got to graduate school, I wanted to be able to use human evolution to figure out more about what those women were doing.

That led me to study Neandertals, who walked on two legs and had big brains like us, but they had a different skeleton. My question was, “did they have the same birth constraints or were they doing something different?” It turned out that there weren’t many female Neandertal skeletons to look at, which means all the previous work on Neandertal birth was looking at a single female and a bunch of male remains. That didn’t seem right. My thesis turned out to be about what we can gather from really fragmented remains. I was able to find out that Neandertal females had a different shaped pelvis and birthing mechanism than we do. This means we can’t just assume that all large-brain bipeds will have the same sex-identifying features in the skeleton.

A Neandertal skeleton, left, compared to a modern human skeleton, right.
A Neandertal skeleton, left, compared to a modern human skeleton, right.

I became interested in the fact that even though we can’t easily identify sex of fossils, we have all these theories based on sexual division of labor and how that affects social systems of hominids. I went into a post-doc position in Feminist Biology, which focused on applying a feminist perspective into a biological science. I was able to expand my studies into how we can do good science without taking modern-day gender biases and applying them to the past without much evidence.

Are you discussing these topics in your courses?

I do emphasize who is doing the science and what that might mean for how they are interpreting the evidence. There were men of European descent finding fossils and publishing on them (even the ones that were found by women), and that’s where we get these male-dominated stories. So I like to bring in examples from the blog Trowel Blazers to show that women have done a lot. When we talk about human evolution, we should remember the biases that framed theories and what may be missing about women and their role in evolution.

Do you think biological anthropology is doing a good job of considering gender bias?

In terms of how well-represented women are in the field, statistics on undergraduate degrees suggest we’re doing pretty well. But there are still problems to address. Even as undergraduate degrees have been increasing, the gender ratio of tenured and full professors has remained the same. This directly affects the questions asked and the conclusions drawn in scientific research. We don’t really see studies where researchers are overtly gender-biased today, but everyone has implicit biases. And for scientists, that affects their research. That’s why we need to be clear that the goal of using a feminist lens in paleoanthropology is to challenge that kind of implicit bias.

 Do you think feminist biology can help make those changes?

A lot of times when I tell people that I do feminist biology, they look at me like “you just have a feminist agenda, which will take away objectivity and make bad science.” It’s actually completely the opposite! I’m recognizing bad science that has happened because of gender bias in the past and I’m calling that out. Science is never completely objective because it’s a human endeavor, but it’s our job to be critical of that. So in that sense, bringing a feminist perspective to science is really helpful.

Should young girls pay attention to this work?

Who is doing the science affects what kind of science gets done. You see this across the STEM world. For example, even though we’ve been studying heart attacks since the 60s, we only recently found out that the symptoms of a heart attack are different in the female body. For decades we’ve been taking medicine that was only tested on male bodies! That’s terrifying. It also affects what we understand about ourselves. Take human evolution: when researchers were mostly guys, the story was “being male was a really important part of humans evolving as a species.” And it’s only recently where people are like, “wait, that doesn’t make sense.” A perspective that challenges long-held gender-biased beliefs about science makes science better, and makes it clear that girls are welcome in what has historically been a male-dominated world.

Make sure to follow Dr. VanSickle on Twitter, and follow her work here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.