• Lily Li

Can Science be Sexist? ‘Romance’ in Egg-Sperm Interaction Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles

“A long long time ago in a faraway land, a beautiful princess was stabbed with the spindle and the old curse from the evil fairy befell her. She lapsed into permanent slumber until being saved by the strongest, bravest knight of the kingdom who overcame heavy challenges and awakened her by a gentle kiss on the forehead…”

The story of Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most popular fairy tales told by dim bedside lamplight, accompanied millions of toddlers to sleep. However, reading from an analytical lens, it is not difficult to identify the rich magical and romanticized imagery and gender-specific themes and commentary within the tale. While the male is portrayed as dominant and powerful, the female appears to be passive and vulnerable. While the debates on sexism in popular literature have been an everlasting topic, similar elements of gender-specific perspective of narration were rarely realized in other fields of study, especially in science.

One scientific model that illustrates gender stereotypes is generative fertilization. Scientific descriptions of the egg-sperm interaction rely heavily on gender specific stereotypes, stressing the passiveness and unproductiveness of female reproductive systems and the dominance of the male reproductive system. A remarkably passive and feminine image was painted in the scientific language used to describe the egg-sperm interaction.

Traditional textbook writings and early publications on fertilization do gender by stressing how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the male sperm comports itself. The egg is assumed to take on an inactive position in the process; it does not “move” or “journey”, but ”is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” (Martin). Whereas the sperm is described as ”strong” and “efficiently powered’’ and can “burrow through the egg coat” and “penetrate” it (Tobatch).

Readers of such female-passivity-embedded scientific theories often perceive the egg-sperm interaction as a competition between the sperm fighting for the final prize of egg. Sperm is active and humanized in the story, whereas egg remains objectified, serving as a complementary figure in the male-centered interaction. In fact, a more accurate account of fertilization is a mutually active action where the egg traps the sperm and adheres to it until the digestive enzyme it produces breaks down the zona pellucida (glycoprotein shell) and makes it through. In many published scientific articles, descriptions of egg-sperm interaction feminize the egg’s role as the “sleeping beauty”, as if it is a dormant bride passively waiting for the sperm to instill the spirit that brings her to life. Sperms have to carry out a “perilous journey” into the “warm darkness,” where some fall away “exhausted”. “Survivors” “assault” the egg, the successful candidates “surrounding the prize.

"Sleeping beauty" or "damsel in distress" situation implied by scientific explanation of egg-sperm interaction.

Actually, the egg acts to lure its counterpart. “Human eggs release chemicals called chemoattractants, which leave a sort of chemical breadcrumb trail that sperm use to find unfertilized eggs,” said study author John Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor in the department of zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden.

This common model stresses the fragility and dependency of the eggs. In other revised cases, the egg ends up being the female aggressor in which she “clasps the sperm and guides its nucleus to the center,” thus granting eggs an active role but at the cost of appearing perturbingly aggressive with images of engulfing, devouring attack. Thus older scientific descriptions endow cellular entities with personhood that parallels cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior.

Scientific descriptions of egg-sperm interaction import old social expectations of femininity and masculinity in cellular entities, keeping alive gender stereotypes about the inactiveness of females in distress and the strong male rescuer. The imagery encourages people to imagine egg-sperm interaction as human activity on a cellular level. The inaccurate scientific language used relates egg-sperm interaction directly to the image of making a cellular baby in a microscopic “culture,” endowing eggs and sperm with intentional actions and personhood. Changing this sort of imagery in language may go a long way toward ending obsolete ideas about gender in all kinds of discussions.