Despite the fact that fertilization requires mutual, active participation by both eggs and sperm, gender roles are often projected onto reproductive biology, leading to the portrayal of eggs as passive and sperm as active. For example, the opening credits in the 1989 movie Look Who’s Talking portray a common perception of fertilization. As the Beach Boys’ song “I Get Around” plays in the background, we see sperm inside a women’s reproductive tract moving toward her egg. The scene is narrated by one of the sperm, though we can hear some of the other sperm talking. The narrating sperm tells the others, “Ok, follow me … I know where we’re going … I’ve got the map. Follow me kids, keep up.” Upon seeing the egg, the sperm says “I think I see something … this is it, this is definitely it … jackpot!” to which another sperm relies “Yee haw!” We then see a bunch of sperm on the outside of the egg, seeking entrance through the egg membrane – a difficult task as evidenced by the lead sperm stating, “kinda tough here.” The egg then envelopes one sperm as it cries “Ohhh, ohh, I’m in, I’m in.” In this scene, the egg is portrayed as passive, merely drifting along waiting to be discovered by the sperm, whereas the sperm is active, strong, and on a mission to reach the egg.
A colleague and I were interested in seeing if this misperception of fertilization is limited to the media or if it is also seen in scientific writing. We analyzed science textbooks from the middle school to the medical school level to determine if fertilization in human reproduction is described in gender biased language regarding the sentence structure, amount of information provided for female and male processes/parts, and neutrality in describing female and male processes/parts.
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