Servan Grüninger: Dr. Pape, your research has been featured in a newspaper article on «weird» and «questionable» academic projects. What was your initial reaction upon hearing this?
Madeleine Pape: I was astonished, but not too much. I initially hadn’t seen the article and only learned about it thanks to some colleagues, so I was surprised to see my project featured this way in a Swiss German newspaper. But I was also not surprised in the sense that I knew from the start that my research had the potential to be perceived as polarizing. Because of this, I had been preparing together with the Dean’s office for this kind of exposure and I was prepared for attacks on me as a person or on my work.
What makes your research so controversial that you felt the need of having a crisis plan ready before you had even started?
I don't think that my research is inherently controversial. But the topic that it revolves around – the inclusion of transgender women in women-only spaces like sports competitions, change rooms, or prisons – certainly has been at the center of many polarizing debates in recent years. In my opinion, that makes it all the more necessary to describe and understand, in a scientifically rigorous way, how these debates are held. What my project is fundamentally about is understanding how feminist groups mobilize to influence policy outcomes. That's the sort of baseline interest: How can we better understand the way that feminist actors influence policy and legislation, particularly policy and legislation that concerns gender equality? And how can we better grasp sex as a policy object?
What do you mean by «sex as a policy object»?
I mean sex as it gets defined in political settings, as an object of policy making, how it is represented in and shaped by political decisions and legal documents. For a lot of people, if you're doing any kind of inquiry into how biological sex is understood, how it's defined, how it is leveraged politically, and how it becomes embedded in legislation, they see this in itself as a controversial move. As if even asking these questions were problematic. To me, this reflects a lack of curiosity. After all, the goal of my research is not about shutting down the debate by providing an absolute answer to what biological sex should or should not be. Rather, it is about being curious about the different ways that biological sex is defined across different contexts and across different institutional settings.
Another reason that might make my project an easy target is that it addresses the question of biological sex in the context of transgender inclusion. And whenever it comes to discussions about trans people, trans women in particular, politics and media create an environment which tries to force you to pick a side, it’s black or white, us vs. them. You either need to be for the full and unquestioned inclusion of trans women in women only spaces – no strings attached. Or you are absolutely against trans women, entirely unable to recognize them as women, insisting on referring to them as «biological males», unable to grant any form of recognition to trans women as a subset of the social category that we define as «women».
And it’s not a topic that people simply shrug about. Everyone seems to have very strong opinions about it.
Exactly, everyone has an opinion about it. And I guess, that oftentimes it's an opinion that isn't based on any encounters with an actual transgender person. Which is not that surprising because there are comparably few transgender people. But this also shows that everyone’s interest in this topic is completely out of proportion with the actual size of the population that it affects. I mean, we're talking about such a small minority of people, less than 2%, by some counts less than 1% of the population who identify as transgender. And yet their existence has prompted this huge discussion. The question of what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man seems to touch on something really fundamental to people's lived experiences, their sense of who they are, their identity, their relations with the people around them, their position in society.
Unfortunately, this dichotomy I just described, the «us vs. them», makes it very difficult for people to bring another kind of frame to this topic and understand that actually, there are some interesting questions to be asked. About how women’s rights can look like in different political settings, who should be granted these rights and in which circumstances. But also about why polarization is happening in this way.
How do you navigate a space that is so fraught with controversy and political pressures? A space, in which trans activists, feminists, conservatives, liberals all fight for political dominance regarding this matter and all of them try – in their way – to leverage scientific research to their advantage, maybe even influence it directly. How do you keep yourself from being dragged into these types of controversies?
I think that's a really good question, because you're right: You’re damned if you take a clear position and damned if you don’t. I do think, on a personal level, that there's room for trans women in women-only spaces. But this personal conviction of me should be treated separately from my research. To ensure this separation, I rely on my sociological training to guide me. My research has to be informed by robust methodology and an intellectual curiosity and openness that is often missing in political debates.
I don't see it as my job to do research that can support a particular political agenda. Rather, I see myself as someone who might be able to provide new, more nuanced perspectives, maybe building bridges, especially when it comes to the inclusion of trans women in sports competition.
I am an athlete myself. I was a middle-distance runner, competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics and I also raced against Caster [Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner with an intersex condition who was at the center of debates around who should be allowed to participate in the women’s category in sports competitions]. Hence, I have first-hand experiences with many of the discussions around the inclusion of different kinds of women into sports competitions and, from this background, I want to create opportunities for dialogue and for mutual understanding by providing additional perspectives on these types of debates. But to make such a contribution, my research has to be solid.
How do you convince yourself – and others, for that matter – that your research is indeed solid. That it’s not just politics in disguise, as Rico Bandle implied in his article?
There are a number of checks and balances built into the academic system. A really obvious one is the fact that, to get the research grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), I had to go through a rigorous selection process that assessed my research questions, the proposed methods and the case studies that I had chosen. During that process, I was also asked «How do you avoid letting politics shape your project?», which I think is fair. Of course, politics shapes every research endeavor to a certain degree, but it is valid to ask researchers to be aware of these influences in order to counteract them.
Then, there is the publication process. In order to get my findings published, they first need to be assessed by experts in the field. They check the methodological rigor of my work but also whether the claims I make are justified by the evidence. I get the feeling that sometimes people have the impression that qualitative work such as mine, that is, work that aims at the precise description of a phenomenon – such as biological sex in my case – is somehow less precise or less scientific than quantitative research. But there are plenty of examples where sex differences were studied quantitatively by employing incorrect statistical analyses or without clearly describing what was actually measured.
«Where does science end and where does activism begin? This is something that must constantly be renegotiated. Especially, when one needs public funds for one's research, one should engage in this discussion and be able to explain why what one is doing is important and scientifically valuable.»
The journalist Rico Bandle has repeatedly criticized research in the humanities and the social sciences in Switzerland. In the interview, he explains why he thinks that this criticism is necessary (in German).
As a statistician, I agree. Quantification contains the danger of hiding crucial assumptions and there is a lot of shoddy statistics out there, also in the natural sciences, for that matter. But doesn’t this fact undermine the trust in those processes that you just mentioned? If shoddy research can get funded and published, why should the public trust that scientific rigor is upheld?
It's a good question. Of course, peer assessment is not perfect, but I do believe in the value of the academic process and the checks and balances we have in place to ensure the quality of our work. I think it’s not too much of a problem if the occasional bad egg slips through the cracks, as the scientific process is usually self-correcting. It would be much more concerning if there exist systematic distortions which the individual reviewers don’t spot because they are not even aware of them.
And this brings me back to my own research: A lot revolves around looking at the way biological sex is defined and taken for granted. By taking a closer and scientifically rigorous look at what biological sex means, we can see how contingent it is on the circumstances in which it is used. If biological sex had a universally shared definition, we would have the same policies regarding sex in Switzerland as we do in Australia, in the US, in the UK, in France. Instead, we see a diverse landscape of how people think about biological sex – even within the same country. My job is not to convince you which of these different notions of sex are right but rather to convince you that there is something interesting happening, that the certainties we might have when it comes to the question of biological sex are maybe not that well founded. And then it's up to you to show me where and how I might be wrong in this assessment. It’s the open and critical debate about these issues that helps us broaden the scientific knowledge base.
But why should the Swiss taxpayers fund research that is, in your case, primarily centered on the US and the UK?
I think that's a good question, too. And it is, of course, a question that funding bodies ask as well. In Australia, where I'm from, the funding body requires you to be very explicit about how the Australian public benefits from your research.
As for my current project, there is a quite obvious connection to Switzerland: The question of transgender inclusion has been discussed for some years now in the context of sports competitions and Switzerland hosts many international sports governing bodies that are actively engaging in this discussion. Furthermore, the debates that are happening in the UK and the US also shape the discussions in Europe and Switzerland. It makes sense to understand how the debate on transgender inclusion works in the US and the UK in order to better inform the discussion here in Switzerland.
And maybe prevent the same kind of public polarization that the US and the UK are experiencing over this issue? In the sense of: Look, let's understand these debates in other countries so that we don't have to repeat the same mistakes when discussing these issues?
Sure, but that holds not only for issues like transgender and women rights. I think that the polarization we are observing, this apparent inability to escape the «us-vs-them» mentality, can be observed with a range of other social issues. The rights of people of color come to mind, as does the Black Lives Matter movement, or the discussions on the impacts of colonialism. These are all topics that provoke a lot of controversies to the point that it appears to be impossible to understand the people who have a different point of view from us. So, understanding why that happens and how it might be prevented or overcome seems to be valuable regardless of the national context. That’s certainly something that I want to be able to contribute to with my work: how to make dialogue possible, or possible again, when it comes to such issues.
How much of a responsibility do academics have to enable this type of nuanced debates for which you are advocating? From the outside it seems as if some scientists were doing the opposite: They are not shy to fuel the flames and they have no trouble making themselves heard in the media, in politics, whereas more nuanced voices from within academia are less present. Does that bother you?
I wouldn’t say that it bothers me, but I have made experiences that confirm what you are describing. I was asked to participate in a debate on Swiss national television, on «Forum». And I was like: «Yes, I can participate, but here is what I would contribute», essentially providing the talking points that we have been addressing in this interview. And the response was: «You know, we're really looking for people with strong opinions, so we don't think you're a fit for this program.»
In fairness, they did give me the opportunity to participate in a different television format to have a more extended conversation about what’s at stake when it comes to the discussions around the rights of trans people and trans women in particular. But of course, many more people tune into «Forum» and they are then presented with a polarized frame from the get-go. To be frank, I find such debates quite tiring and I don’t bother with them anymore. Not because I don’t want to have conversations, but I just realized that these polarized settings, which are of course not limited to traditional media but are plentiful on social media, too, are not places where you can have meaningful conversations.
But this has also been a development on my part. I think when I was a less experienced researcher, just coming out of my PhD, I was coming from a more combative feminist perspective. Back then, I probably would have loved to jump in a debate on «Forum» presenting a really strong point of view. I think with the benefit of more experience, I've seen that's not the best use of my expertise.
What would be better?
I think we need to build spaces where meaningful dialogue can happen. Spaces where the goal is not simply a fight to the death between the views that are anti-trans and the views that are pro-trans. The question that I am asking myself is: How do we become more informed and smarter operators in this context of intensifying polarization around this topic? What do we know about what works to actually have a more meaningful dialogue?
This is also something on which I am working for me as a person, finding ways to hold conversations where it is not me forcing my opinion on other people but rather about creating spaces for listening and understanding.
But you still need some physical places or platforms in which these conversations can unfold.
Yes, where to go to have these discussions? I think that the university classroom is a great space for this, especially because as a lecturer, my job is not to force a particular viewpoint down the throats of students. We’re doing well to defend these spaces from politicized attacks like they are happening for example in the US. The goal of university teaching should be to be as inclusive and balanced in the classroom so that students have access to the information and the methodological tools to make up their own minds. It's not my job to tell students what to think. It's my job to help them have an understanding of the wider landscape and be able to form an informed opinion about it.
About the interviewee
Dr. Madeleine Pape is a sociologist of gender at the University of Lausanne. Her research explores how the idea of «biological sex» is understood and leveraged in political contexts. She currently studies how policymakers, scientists, and activist groups attempt to define «sex» when it comes to the inclusion of transgender women in women-only spaces like sports competitions, change rooms, or prisons. Dr. Pape has been awarded the prestigious Swiss National Science Foundation’s «Ambizione» grant.
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