Conference Report - Rethinking the Boundaries of Sex and Gender in Science, Society, and Technology

I. Executive Summary


The morning sessions include the conference welcome from Professor Suad Joseph, and keynote presentations by Melissa Gilliam, M.D., Jenny Reardon, Ph.D., and Carole Joffe, Ph.D.  Video available here:

On February 8, 2016 the Feminist Research Institute (FRI) at UC Davis convened its inaugural symposium on transdisciplinary feminist research. Provost Ralph Hexter and Vice Chancellor for Research Harris Lewin provided warm endorsements for the institute. Provost Hexter stated,

“This mission is critical because the feminist lens has been historically underdeveloped and underutilized in the Academy and in society in general… We cannot hope adequately to understand the world from any disciplinary perspective or develop the innovations, social structures or culture that will adequately serve us without dedicated scholarly programs such as FRI.”

The event drew over 140 participants from across the UC Davis campuses in Davis and Sacramento, with some from other UC Campuses and the interested public. The one-day event was designed to connect scholars, researchers and practitioners across fields, to generate collaborative research opportunities, and to learn from leading scholars in transdisciplinary feminist science.

Dr. Melissa Gilliam MD, Ph.D., a former Dean for Diversity of the University of Chicago presented on the establishment and work of the University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation (Ci3), which conducts teen pregnancy research and outreach with South Chicago teens. Ci3 uses radical and creative methods of engaging youth. These include critical game design, digital storytelling and production labs, as well as health infrastructure design. Gilliam described the restrictiveness of orthodox, disciplinary thinking as a “crisis of imagination,” one that interdisciplinary and publically engaged research efforts like Ci3 and FRI are designed to overcome.

Jenny Reardon, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology and Feminist Studies and Director of the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz, discussed the structural functions of race, class and region in genomic research. She shared her observations regarding a well-funded genomic research initiative in Tuskegee, Alabama. In the context of the enduring legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis scandal, a well-intentioned multi-million dollar investment established a new high-level research facility for genomic research. Ironically, these new state of the art genomic studies would target the same subject population of African-American men living in communities still lacking adequate basic health care. The contradiction was ultimately resolved when the project was discontinued.

Carol Joffe, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UC San Francisco and Professor Emerita in Sociology at UC Davis, discussed Reproductive Justice and the “War on Science” to address misappropriations of scientific authority by right-wing ideologues who distort scientific research and make false claims in organized efforts to reverse hard-won progress in women’s reproductive rights. These politicians mobilize academic dishonesty or “junk science” to shape public policy, arguing for waiting periods, mandatory counseling and other paternalistic policies that limit women’s reproductive choices and undermine service provision.

The afternoon session featured “think tank” working groups that addressed the topics of sex and gender in genomics and biotechnology; gender, data and communications; agriculture, land and climate change; and care work and clinical practice. The groups considered various approaches to designing research projects and protocols that contribute to the overarching question, “What does transdisciplinary feminist research look like?” Rather than provide detailed or rigid definitions, FRI utilizes a generative approach, informed by the application of feminist ethics of inclusivity, intersectionality, transnational collaboration and public engagement, in the design and conduct of research. Feminist research is pursued with a view to catalyzing new ways of thinking and conducting research that is informed by contemporary theorizations of gender, sexuality and other dimensions of structural inequality, and the inter-connections between these, within and across borders.

II. Conference Objectives in Relation to Feminist Research Institute Mission

This conference provided a valuable space for scholars to explore what it means to rethink disciplinary, institutional and socio-structural boundaries in relation to FRI’s inaugural focus on bringing feminism and STEM together to draw insights that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Participants were as inspired by the presentations of those on the forefront of transdisciplinary feminist research as by their re-discovery of one another in the collegial space of the group brainstorming sessions. In this manner, each group succeeded in exploring new, cutting edge research ideas. This marked the first major event in pursuit of the FRI mission, which seeks to:

  • Function as a collaborative, transdisciplinary hub for exploring how gender, sexuality, race, and other social structures inform the design, execution, and interpretation of research
  • Advance trans-disciplinarity through holistic, collaborative approaches that bridge existing disciplinary divisions
  • Explore and advance the implications of diversity in knowledge production
  • Provide a physical and conceptual space to support and promote local and international scholars in the development and execution of innovative, trans-disciplinary knowledge production.
  • Strengthen and promote local and transnational intellectual communities and mentorships through shared research activity and networking.
  • Generate innovative, paradigm-shifting methodologies by offering a supportive space for risk-taking and experimentation in research.

III. Conference Working Groups

A. Case Work and Clinical Practice

The Case Work and Clinical Practice working group comprised faculty and doctoral candidates from the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, Performance Studies, and Cultural Studies. Discussion included talk of many types of differences, including: 1) salary and funding (soft money vs. hard money), 2) time-to-degree standards for graduate students, 3) difficulties in translating questions, epistemologies and methods across fields of study. They also discussed the comfort of disciplinary categories, and the need to transcend this comfort for trans-disciplinarity to work.

So in the face of all these differences, the group asked, what is it that makes us want to work together? If it is not methods or questions, perhaps it is an attention to social justice. But, even “social justice” might mean different things for different partners. This led to the realization that they needed to unravel words’ meanings before they could even start talking to each other.

Perhaps, part of the importance of collaboration lies in letting go of one’s 'own' meanings, 'own' questions, 'own' methods,  and 'own' categories. Perhaps what is needed is work towards multiple curiosities in research and appealing to each researcher’s particular curiosity.

B. Agriculture, Land, and Climate Change

This group included faculty, post-docs and graduate students from Plant Sciences, Evolution and Ecology, Land Air and Water Resources, Cultural Studies, Engineering and a community advocate. The group formulated a research project idea that would address climate change by investigating the drought and water restrictions in the California region in recent years. How have different groups responded to water restrictions, and how are the consequences of the drought affected different populations in unequal ways? Such a project would examine the effects on farmworkers, small farms, migratory populations, and First Nation groups. It would explore how access to water is intricately linked to capital, gender and race.

Research questions from this group included:

  • What implicit values or morals are embedded within individual attitudes, and in community, corporate, and state responses to drought and water conservation?

  • How can different institutions respond in more effective ways than individuals? 

  • How might gender dynamics affect perceptions, practices, and reactions?

  • What mitigations or actions items are coming from different groups? How might these inform or influence policy? 

In terms of methodology, the team discussed potentially using games as models to put forth a participatory research agenda. The group considered the question, “How can we ‘listen deeply’ within communities to discover their responses, and how might this influence policy?” 

C. Gender, Data, and Communications

This group included faculty with expertise in cultural studies, macro-sociology and statistics technology. Members discussed the problems of gathering large scale statistical data related to gender and work. Specifically, concerns about how certain countries are unable to account for the kinds of labor women engage in (emotional, familial, etc.) and how this makes it challenging for researchers to probe questions about the role women have in certain economies. This causes problems with the ways social scientists are able to gather reliable data about gender, given the blind-spots in census data. 

This group also discussed issues related to the interpretation of data by data analysts, and the ways in which an unmarked male gaze renders gender dynamics invisible. How does gender haunt data interpretation? How might a slight reorientation towards our data make visible the ways gender functions as a structuring principle in worldviews? 

This group also discussed the ways governmental and non-governmental US agencies gather large amounts of data to direct certain bodies and desires towards specific ends, often in ways undetectable to humans. People don't always know who is watching, when, and for what purpose. With the rise of algorithmic processes that learn from human users, opportunities for resistance are temporally and spatially contingent, as algorithms are able to "learn" about behavior to such a degree that many seek to determine their users’ “true” genders.

D. Sex and Gender in Genomics and Technology

Colleagues from the medical research, biomedical engineering, sociology, genetics, law, cultural studies, gender, sexuality and women’s studies centrally concerned themselves with the challenges of recognizing research problems across disciplinary boundaries. A key research proposal being developed concerns the National Academy of Sciences Gene Editing Summit, and related issues surrounding CRISPR gene editing technology. The Clancy laboratory shared work on gender and sex and heart disease, pointing to the need for a holistic, transdisciplinary appraisal of heart disease factors; as well as attention to the methodological differences such as the definition of ‘patient centered’ research. The group discussed research design challenges such as control groups, deliverables, and metrics. They also discussed a training grant proposal to bring the medical and health sciences workforce into step with thinking beyond the constructed gender binary.

A range of capacity building ideas were discussed including a seminar composed of humanists and life scientists; putting forward a UC Davis “Big Idea” project concerning gender, big data and ethics; organizing an NEH summer seminar; seeking an NIH conference grant. Other suggestions were the setting up of “speed dating” between scientists and humanists to discuss research, and setting up a certificate program in bioethics for grad students and junior faculty.

IV. Conference Program

8.15-9.00 Registration and coffee/tea/snacks

Session 1: Opening 9.00-10.45pm

9.00 Introduction to FRI at Davis FRI BOD chair – Prof Suad Joseph

Formal Welcome Remarks Provost Ralph Hexter & Vice Chancellor for Research Harris Lewin       

9.30 Introduction, Chair Dean Heather Young, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing

"Innovations in Sexual and Reproductive Health" Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH University of Chicago.


10.45-11.00  COFFEE/TEA BREAK

Session 2 11.00-1.00

11.00 Introduction, Dr. Amparo Villeblanca, School of Medicine

"The Postgenomic Condition: Rethinking Feminist Epistemology and Justice After the Genome," Jenny Reardon, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate in the Center for Bimolecular Science and Engineering. Director, Science and Justice Research Center

12.00 "Reproductive Health and the War on Science," Carole Joffe, Ph.D., UCSF, Dept of Obstetrics and Gynaecology

1.00-2.00 LUNCH BREAK

Session 3  2.00-5.30pm: FRI Research and Break Out Sessions

2.00 Introductory Remarks, Amina Mama “What Do Trans-disciplinary Feminist Collaborations Look Like?

2.30 Break Out Sessions
Group Facilitators:  FRI Research faculty & graduate students

  • Pedagogy and Training
  • Gender, Data, and Communications
  • Gender and Sex in Genomics and Biotechnology
  • Agriculture, Land, and Climate Change
  • Care Work and Clinical Practice
  • Feminist Arts & Humanist Approaches to Cultural Products

4.00- 4.15        TEA BREAK

4.15 Presentation of research ideas

5.15-5.30  Closing Remarks  BOD Chair, Suad Joseph

Extracts from Post-Conference Evaluation Survey

What new insights did you take away?

“How much there is still to do. The possibilities of different methods for action/intervention, including the stories/video methods, and the gaming.”

Did the event meet its objective of enabling you to ‘Rethink Boundaries’? How/which aspect?

“Yes. The boundaries are more substantial than I knew; AND inspiring feminist researchers are traversing them.”

“Yes, boundaries across disciplines. I appreciated that all three speakers had something different to add to the broader picture of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

What did you take away/find most memorable?

“The warmth and affective charge of the event was most memorable; I was reminded of the value of spending time with feminist comrades. I met some inspiring colleagues and gained a valuable new professional endeavor.”