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UW Anthropologist Examines Intersection Between Biology & Feminism

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When it comes to studying the origins of humans, we naturally rely a lot on the fossil record.  And fossils, well, they teach us pretty much everything we need to know about our ancestors, right?

"The long history of gender norms that often get talked about aren't actually supported by the fossil evidence I look at on a daily basis," says Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow at UW-Madison in feminist biology. Her work will be the focus of the next Science On Tap lecture series at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

VanSickle’s work challenges a lot of our assumptions about how science works. Many stories we hear about human evolution make it seem like gender roles today, such as the male's prowess in athletics or women being more emotional, are natural and solidified in history.

Through her work she often can disprove common assumptions, such as the recent studies that have shown no meaningful difference in walking pace or energy between men and women. VanSickle has also learned that science is not necessarily a gender neutral enterprise.

"The scientist gets to choose a lot of the things about what they're doing, which is cool, but it also means there's these are all different areas where scientists can add their own bias in if they're not cautious," she explains. "We have to be critical of ourselves and critical of each other when we're doing this practice to make sure we can avoid that."

Started 2014, the postdoctorate position she holds is the first of its kind. VanSickle applies feminist theory to research and also teaches biology-centered classes in the Gender Study department.

This work does draw criticism, but she tries to take it in stride. Some scientists claim that applying feminist theory to research will in turn have a feminist bias, but VanSickle clarifies that all she seeks to do is look for and avoid gender bias so it does not "negatively impact the research (they're) doing."

In anthropology, there is a major focus on how culture impacts the biology of human and vice versa, so VanSickle felt "well placed" to tackle these issues as an anthropologist herself.

"Science is a human endeavor, and as humans doing science that is part of the story," she says. "It's not just the science being done."

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.