July 15, 2013 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

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.

Unfortunately, we found that scientific textbooks tend to present the egg and sperm in ways that align with dominant gender norms. Indeed, many textbook accounts of fertilization read like a fairy tale—specifically like a courtship or romance—with the sperm as the “knight in shining armor” and the egg as the “damsel in distress.”  We were surprised to find that gendered language was just as common at the higher levels (college and medical school) as the lower levels. In almost all textbooks, we encountered passive language to describe the egg (e.g. “the egg is fertilized” and “the egg is swept”). In contrast, sperm’s activities, including their death, were typically presented in active and often anthropomorphic terms. For example, the word “survive” was almost exclusively used for sperm, whereas the death of eggs was depicted in more scientific terms, such as “degenerate” and “disintegrate.” 

At all educational levels, we found shorter explanations, fewer facts, and more misrepresentations about the female reproductive system than the male reproductive system. In particular, most textbooks had minimal information about the active role the egg plays in fertilization and limited or no information about female sexuality even when male sexuality was covered. Even those textbooks that spent more time discussing the female reproductive system often portrayed the female body negatively by selectively omitting certain facts. For instance, the majority of textbooks that described how the acidity of the vagina can deleteriously affect sperm failed to point out the ways the female body can help sperm (e.g. cervical mucus and vaginal lubrication aid in sperm transport). Additionally, the male reproductive system was subtly elevated in many textbooks by the consistent placement of male terms before female ones (e.g. “the sperm and egg” rather than “the egg and sperm”). 

Endowing gametes with gendered personalities reifies gender norms, making them appear “natural” and innate. Sexist language in scientific textbooks undermines teachers’ ability to teach in an accurate and gender-neutral way. Furthermore, presenting science in a gendered way can deter girls and women from enjoying and considering a degree and/or career as a scientist. Overt sexist language and images in textbooks have been shown to have deleterious effects on both girls/women and boys/men and may reinforce the stereotype that science is just not for girls/women. In contrast, gender-neutral language in science textbooks, especially for reproductive biology, will encourage girls and women to partake in and develop an affinity for science. 

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5 comments | Topics: Gender Disparities , Reproductive Medicine


James Finnerty, M.D, M.A

James Finnerty, M.D, M.A wrote on 07/15/13 4:23 PM

Very interesting analysis that never occurred to me over the many years I have been involved caring for the end results of the "sperm finding the egg" or, should we more properly state: "the egg being the welcoming recipient of the migrant and homeless sperm or sperms"?
Jim Finnerty
Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 07/15/13 8:03 PM

A very interesting article which I shall keep. There are attempts to introduce a Gender Policy in my country and this article can help show how much lip service is really being paid to the entire Gender issue.

Sarah wrote on 12/09/13 11:31 AM

This doesn't make any sense. The egg does nothing active during fertilization, other then being released from the ovary. The spermt MUST travel up the fallopian tubes and find the egg by chemotaxis in order to fertilize it. However AFTER fertilization the sperm has contributed its entire share and its up to the egg to become active and develop into an embyro. I'm sick and tired of people trying to argue against scientific fact to prove a superfluous point. I believe you are picking at semantics here that in no way endow "gendered" terms to fertilization. Also, if you are going to state facts and/or quotes from scientific papers/textbooks, CITE! Or else your information is believed incredible, as I find it to be now.

Adam wrote on 12/09/13 2:14 PM

This is idiotic. The sperm literally have tails to swim up the fallopian tube. The ovum is literally a ball that is swept by little appendages in the fallopian tube. You know what happens to all the unlucky sperm that don't fertilize the ovum? They didsolve. This clearly demonstrates a bias against men by marking then as disposable while the women are in finite supply and available only at particular times. In fact, men have an over abundance of sperm all day everyday so no one cares if we lose some. I wouldn't say that "egg and sperm" it's misandry any more than any of what you mentioned is misogynistic.

Stop trying to find sexism where it doesn't exist. You're just making it worse for actual feminist work.

Yresim wrote on 08/21/14 8:19 PM

Just for you, Adam and Sarah, a link to a web site which explains, in basic terms, the concepts the authors are discussing:

If you want to see more academically-minded information, there are a number of scientific articles on the topic, such as "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles" by E. Martin (1991), "Adams Rib" by Ruth Herschberger (1948), and "Mechanics of Sperm-Egg Interaction at the Zona Pellucida" by Jay M. Baltz, David F. Katz, & Richard A. Cone (1988). There's a reason these are older articles: these things have been known for a long, long time. And, yet, high school and sometimes even college biology courses still purport the old fertilization myths. Which is exactly what these authors are discussing.

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