, Volume 49, Issue 6, pp 564–566

Sue V. Rosser, Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science

New York: New York University Press, 2012. 251 pp. $35.00. ISBN: 9780814776452


    • Department of SociologyRice University
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s12115-012-9604-2

Cite this article as:
Cech, E.A. Soc (2012) 49: 564. doi:10.1007/s12115-012-9604-2

Engagingly written and full of eye-widening narratives, Breaking into the Lab explains some of the most complex and entrenched factors that reproduce gender inequality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. In the book, Sue Rosser sets out to explain the barriers and discrimination that women in STEM face, and how those forces manifest today in more covert, but no less consequential, ways than in decades past. For STEM practitioners without much training in social sciences, for policy makers who want powerful personal narratives as well as strong statistics to help make cases for change, and for skeptics who are leery that gender even matters in 21st century science, Rosser’s book is an ideal way to wade into the topic of gender inequality in STEM. Although the book primarily synthesizes and explicates the literature on gender in STEM rather than making a strong contribution to it, Breaking into the Lab is a useful tool of instruction.

For policy audiences and those new to the gender in STEM literature, there is much to appreciate about Breaking into the Lab. First, the introductory chapter provides a useful primer on inequality in science and engineering and addresses head on several common myths, such as the belief that women’s under-representation is due to innate cognitive differences. Second, much of the book pairs stories of Rosser’s own experiences over the course of her career with narratives from her interviews with junior and senior women in STEM, revealing how many forms of inequality have remained firmly entrenched in the last four decades. These narratives are often startling. For example, Rosser describes her encounters with the head of the lab in which she worked as an undergraduate. Rosser was frustrated with her professor’s inquiries about her choice of major because “he often accompanied that question with a kiss” (p. 32). While shocking, Rosser does not employ the narratives purely for shock value—but rather to open readers’ minds to the many ways gender inequality is perpetuated through interactional and institutional processes.

These narrative pairs also do something that is rarely done well in the gender in STEM literature: they give flesh and bones to complex theoretical concepts such as glass ceilings, statistical discrimination, cognitive bias, and work/family stigma. Through these narratives, Rosser asks candid question about her own experiences and those of the women she interviews, breaching a variety of topics (such as self-doubt, breastfeeding at work, and sexual harassment) that many women in STEM may be asking of themselves but hesitate to ask aloud.

For scholars of gender inequality, Rosser offers a few useful insights. First, Rosser challenges that monolithic treatment of the issues facing junior and senior women that is standard in the gender in STEM literature. She adeptly points out that due, in part, to senior women’s place in the life course, they have different career concerns (securing credibility, feelings of isolation) than more junior women, whose most oft-cited concerns revolve around the challenge of balancing work and family. Second, she argues for the importance of gender differences in patenting: “in all countries across all sectors and in all fields, the percentage of women obtaining patents is not only less than their male counterparts, but less than the percentage of women in STEM in the field in the country” (p. 157). Women’s lower level of patenting means they have less of a voice in leading-edge science and engineering inquiry. Although Rosser ultimately encourages women in STEM to embrace the commercialization of science, she provides an insightful critique of such commercialization: because decisions about which products are developed are largely driven by capitalists, the interests of the public, especially those of societal groups with the least power and influence, are often ignored.

Beyond these points, it was difficult to distill much in the way of new empirical or theoretical insights from Breaking into the Lab. Rosser touches on many of the most important issues, such as concerns over work-family balance, mentoring, and garnering credibility. But, given her scholarly and personal expertise, I was hoping for deeper explanations of just how the blatant discrimination of decades past transitioned into more subtle—yet equally detrimental—forms of inequality today. Furthermore, given that her personal story is so central to the book, more reflexivity on how her own experiences shape her views of and commitments to issues of gender inequality would have been helpful. Additionally, although examples and discussion are predominantly about academia, there was not an explicit acknowledgement or justification of that focus.

Despite Breaking into the Lab’s usefulness as a tool of instruction, several assumptions and arguments in the book are contradictory—and occasionally problematic. First, although Rosser made more than one reference to the socially-constructed nature of gender differences, several of her arguments, as well as more casual “points of fact” about men and women, had a gender essentialist flavor. Central to several of her arguments—cultivating male mentors and the importance of having women in leadership positions, for example—is an assumption that women qua women will promote women in STEM. This belief is certainly not Rosser’s alone, and riddles much of the gender in STEM literature. The assumptions behind this belief are that underrepresented groups (i.e. women in STEM) will be automatically concerned for the needs of their fellow group members. While women’s greater likelihood of encountering discriminatory treatment means they are more likely to recognize inequality, all women in STEM do not automatically recognize the unequal social structures that they and other women face. In fact, some women may be as effective at upholding unequal gender structures in STEM as the most biased men. Rather than their gender, the most important determinant of whether people (women and men) will work to advance women is whether they recognize the existence of unequal social structures in STEM. Individuals who do not recognize those structures are unlikely to help change them. It is thus short-sighted to focus only on getting men onboard, and assuming women already are. Both men and women should be exposed to training to educate them about unequal gender structures—education which this very book may help to provide.

Similarly, the book has several broad-sweeping generalizations about women’s greater interest in “helping people” and “improving lives.” In the conclusion, Rosser argues that “because of their attraction to science as a way to help society and people,” women are well-positioned to advise the development of national and local policies that help promote under-represented groups (p. 219). However, making technologies that “improve the lives of people” is not and should not be the purview of only women. Rosser suggests on p. 168 that women in STEM should “formulate hypotheses that focus on gender as a crucial part of the commercialization/patenting decision. For example…ask, might an invention be adapted for a new product, especially useful to women?” Why is this suggestion offered to women scientist only, and not in included in the list of suggestions for male faculty?

More importantly, it is problematic to assume that men and women take such divergent approaches to science and engineering work. Like most social contexts, men’s and women’s enactment of science and engineering is much more similar than it is different. Men and women are entrenched in the same cultures of science and engineering and are expected to operate according to similar values and norms within those cultures. To assume that women produce science and engineering so differently is misleading. Women may have different socially-conditioned starting points in terms of what commitments led them into STEM in the first place, or what broad research topics catch their attention, but epistemologically speaking, men’s and women’s science and engineering work is unlikely to be all that different. In fact, women’s greater pressures to prove their legitimacy in STEM may mean they produce more conventional science and engineering work on average than men do.

Some of the recommendations Rosser offers to women in STEM also seem misguided. For example, the advice she offers to women about their careers, families, and mentors stands in stark contrast to the feminist critiques of science that Rosser reviews at the end of the book. Some of the “positive choices” women in STEM can make are to “persist in research and teaching even when things are not going well;” “be willing to move to further your career, even when it means disruption to your family; and “realize that having a spouse/partner who is supportive of your career is equally or more important than having a supportive mentor.” Most feminist critiques of science and engineering would lend themselves to the argument that the structure of households and (heterosexual) relationships are in need of re-structuring, rather than women in STEM just learning how to better manage their expectations of their households, families, and partners. One is left wondering why Rosser offers such provocative feminist critiques of science and engineering (one of the most insightful parts of the book), yet suggests several solutions that would largely keep in-tact the status quo.

These criticisms aside, the examples, narratives and arguments in this book illustrate that inequalities in STEM are durable, and thus require focused attention. Even though gender inequality manifests differently in STEM today than it did in the 1970s and 1980s, it has transformed into something simultaneously more covert and more difficult to address. Breaking into the Lab helps to bring attention to these subtle (and not-so-subtle) processes and thus fulfils a prerequisite for advancing women in STEM: raising awareness of the gender inequalities that still exist in these professions.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012