Revisiting “The fertilization fairytale:” an analysis of gendered language used to describe fertilization in science textbooks from middle school to medical school

Abstract

Emily Martin’s (Signs J Women Cult Soc 16(31):485–501, 1991) article, “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male–Female Roles,” was published in Signs over 20 years ago. In this groundbreaking article, she discusses how gender roles are often projected onto reproductive biology, leading to the portrayal of eggs as passive and sperm as active. We were interested in seeing if many of her findings are still relevant today. We analyzed science textbooks from the middle school to the medical school level to determine if fertilization in human reproduction is described in gender-biased language regarding the sentence structure, amount of information provided for female and male processes/parts, and neutrality in describing female and male processes/parts. Although there has been much improvement, there is still a long way to go. Sexist language in scientific textbooks is troubling because it negatively affects both female and male students and undermines teachers’ ability to teach in an accurate and gender-neutral way.

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Acknowledgments

The following 2010 Oncofertility Consortium summer research interns and teacher fellows participated in the discussions leading up to this study, as well as with textbook selection and an extensive initial textbook analysis: Benjamin Derman, Rosemary Hines, Alicia Howe, Matt Knoepke, Mark Prosise, Ericka Senegar-Mitchell, Ph.D., Kiran Sreenivas, and Becky Swiontek. Additionally, Sarah Rodriguez, Ph.D., provided much thoughtful insight and critique throughout multiple iterations of this study, and Francesca Duncan, Ph.D., and Robin Skory helped write and edit the “human fertilization” section. A final thank you to Teresa Woodruff, Ph.D, founder and director of the Oncofertility Consortium, for her thoughtful insight in bringing together and leading a multi-disciplinary team, for her encouragement and critique throughout this project, and for championing the cause of gender neutral language in science. Grant Funding research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers: 5UL1DE019587 and RL1 HD058296. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Nadia L. Johnson.

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Lead Editor: S. Martin.

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Campo-Engelstein, L., Johnson, N.L. Revisiting “The fertilization fairytale:” an analysis of gendered language used to describe fertilization in science textbooks from middle school to medical school. Cult Stud of Sci Educ 9, 201–220 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-013-9494-7

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Keywords

  • Reproductive biology
  • Gendered language
  • Science education
  • Medical education
  • Gender roles