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1This book, edited by Anne-Marie Devreux, presents work by the “Gender studies” theme-based multidisciplinary research network aimed at examining the “conditions of possibility for trans-disciplinary gender study”. It brings together contributions by 19 authors (women researchers but also doctors, engineers, project and taskforce leaders from public institutions and private companies) on three different topic areas: biomedicine and health, ecology and the environment, and technology and engineering. It is this wide range of fields that makes the book so original; applications of the gender concept are usually confined to a single discipline. As Devreux explains, the work aims to demonstrate the cross-disciplinary potential of the gender concept, to examine and compare the various disciplines’ resistances to integrating it, and to explore possibilities for institutionalizing interdisciplinarity as a means of overcoming those resistances.

2The work sets out to examine “knowledge and science in the making” through the prism of gender. Using concrete examples from different, usually isolated disciplines, the book pursues the initial purpose of feminist research: to expose gender bias by showing that the sciences develop in large part without taking women into account. Women are under-represented both among scientists and as a research focus, and the result is that our knowledge is androcentric, the expression of “a masculine view conceived of and presented as universalist when it is in fact specific and particularist”.

3The book is divided into three parts, each comprising four or five chapters. The first sets out to “expose the androcentric viewpoint” of the sciences by reviewing the literature, the second to “reveal how sex and gender are in fact at the centre of research topics”, while the third discusses initiatives and experiments aiming to “remedy androcentrism by taking gender into account”. Though the content was broken down this way in the interests of clarity, it should be noted that most chapters include literature reviews, references to case studies, and outlines for solutions. The three parts are framed by Devreux’s introduction, in which she explains how the book proceeds and recalls earlier contributions of feminist research, and an afterword by the neurobiologist Françoise Moos, co-director of the “Gender Studies” network, offering a critical analysis of why France has lagged behind in gender awareness and a list of French and non-French initiatives – journals, seminars, research projects – purporting to remedy this situation.

4While it is beyond the scope of this review to summarize the 14 chapters, I can briefly present two particularly problematic cases of androcentrism in biomedicine and health. To begin with, the way these disciplines conceive of differences between men and women usually reflects rigid sexual bi-categorization – despite the many criteria used to define the biological sexes. In studies of pathologies, differences within sex groups – which may be considerable – have often been neglected in favour of differences between sex groups, though these may not be as marked, especially when socioeconomic variables come into play. Furthermore, men’s situation is usually presented as the general case while women’s is the particular one. Women are thought of as men “with a few different body parts”, a situation that leads researchers to extrapolate from findings on male respondents. The problem here is that sex, like gender, may well impact on pathologies and how they are treated. In the case of cardiovascular disease, for example, the male model has been abusively generalized to the population at large; risks in the female population are therefore underestimated and undertreated because researchers know little about the specific symptoms of these diseases in women or the specific treatments they should receive – despite the fact that this category of disease is the first cause of mortality among women. Conversely, osteoporosis is seen as a female pathology and is therefore underestimated and undertreated among men, despite the fact that men often suffer from it in old age.

5Let me conclude by returning to the book’s stated objectives to see how well they have been met. The many themes and aspects discussed do make us aware of how common the phenomenon of androcentrism is in the sciences, especially sciences remote from the social variety. Moreover, as the chapters are short (no more than 12 pages) and their content relatively accessible, the book is successful in explaining gender studies to the general reader. Depending on reader interest and sensibility, it may be read straight through or by theme or part, and there is no need to be a specialist of the discipline in question. The presentation of the theoretical framework of feminist research in the introduction provides novices with all they need for understanding the rest of the book. And the afterword lists useful tools and approaches for remedying the problem of androcentrism in the sciences. The only criticism I would have concerns the stated aim of probing and comparing the different disciplines’ resistances to integrating the gender factor – a difficult exercise that is in fact left up mostly to the reader. Otherwise, this is a useful, enriching and thorough work that succeeds in transmitting the knowledge acquired in gender studies by way of detailed and varied examples.

Marie Mengotti
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 30/03/2018
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