Engineering Science, Vector Metaphor and Women’s Needs

According to Evelyn Fox Kellers, a vector (in mathematics) represents science. Within science, there are various actors, such as the researcher and the research participants. A vector has both a force and a direction, just like science and the actors in science; each with different agendas, plans, wills, prejudices and values. Science is not free from ideologies, political control, opinions, values ​​and interests because no human being or institution is free from ideas and values. Since we (researchers) are central in the production of knowledge – we perform scientific experiments, interpret results, convey implications of research and so on – we can conclude that no knowledge is free or objective. When a researcher seeks funding, the research project must meet several requirements. Often, these requirements are linked to economic or societal interests. It is rare that research, especially in technology or engineering, can be conducted for its own sake because research (often) depends on funding. In Sweden, tax money is a common form of research funding.

I recently got acquainted with the Spacerpad project. In the Spacerpad project, the engineers have developed reusable sanitary pads for women living in poverty areas. The motivations for developing the sanitary pads were several, including menstruation’s impact on women’s everyday lives and educational  opportunities. According to previous research, women avoid going to school when menstruating because they do not have access to sanitary products.

It is apparent in the description of the Spacerpad project that the engineers have a deep contextual understanding of the women’s situation. For example, many poor women have only limited access to water. Therefore, the sanitary pads come with a washing container that makes it easier to wash the sanitary pads with just a little bit of water. In addition, the sanitary pads dry very quickly and are equipped with a drying pocket in case the women want to dry the pads discreetly. In other words, the engineers made sure that the technology they developed was actually accepted and useful for women. The engineers also recognised the economic opportunity that came with the sanitary pads. They claimed that if the pads were to be produced locally, the pads would be more affordable, and the production of the pads would give rise to employment opportunities in production and businesses. If I were to use the vector metaphor by Evelyn Fox Kellers, I would say that the force and the direction of the vector in the Spacerpad project stem from women’s needs and desires, and second from economic possibilities. The project thus shows that economic gains and meeting the needs of women and the environmental can go hand in hand.

The Spacerpad project meets all the requirements in the definitions I have found about engineering science. The project “produces systems or tools (sanitary pads in this case) with technology that are the result of science” [1]. In addition, the project solves a meaningful problem [5] (helping poor women live a decent life) by using scientific methods and creativity. KTH’s [4] description of engineering science also includes the engineers’ professional role, and in this case, this includes, understanding of women’s everyday lives, problems, needs, assets, values, etc. Being reflective and open is an important part of an engineer’s professional role.

Let’s again go back to the vector metaphor by Evelyn Fox Kellers. We can understand that the power and direction of science (and the vector) are determined partly by scientific funding and partly by people in positions of power who decide who gets funded. Thus, they also determine how science should be prioritised. Historically, women have been in the minority in engineering and public spaces (in this case, where decisions on research funding are made). Given men’s dominance in technology, it is no wonder that men’s definition of what research is valuable or worth pursuing has been prioritised. Women’s living conditions, problems, and situations have thus not been seen as an arena where engineering solutions could take place. How is it that we have developed a space rocket that can take us on a lunar journey in 1969, and only over 40 years later have we found a sensible solution for one of women’s most common needs: adequate and comfortable menstrual protection?! It has taken so long for the engineers to prioritise (poor) women’s needs for sustainable sanitary pads that meet all women’s requirements. Fortunately, the number of women in engineering and public fields has increased (albeit slowly). Thanks to this, we can hopefully see changes in the type of science conducted in engineering.

References

[1]       “Vad är teknik? – Users.se.” https://users.se/vad-ar-teknik/ (accessed Jan. 17, 2022).

[2]       NE.se, “teknik – Uppslagsverk – NE.se.” https://www.ne.se/uppslagsverk/encyklopedi/l%C3%A5ng/teknik (accessed Jan. 17, 2022).

[3]       E. Sahlström, “Skillnaden mellan teknik och teknologi,” Evas skrivskola, Apr. 23, 2019. https://evasskrivskola.se/sprakriktighet/skillnaden-mellan-teknik-och-teknologi/ (accessed Jan. 17, 2022).

[4]       KTH.se, “Ingenjörsvetenskap (ED1100) | KTH.” https://www.kth.se/social/course/ED1100/ (accessed Jan. 17, 2022).

[5]       “Ingenjörsvetenskap,” Wikipedia. Mar. 19, 2021. Accessed: Jan. 17, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://sv.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ingenj%C3%B6rsvetenskap&oldid=49024405