I finished reading Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini earlier this month and let me tell you, it is just as what the title says it is – about science and women. But not just that, it is also about sexism in the field of science. Saini has also previously written Geek Nation: How Indian Science is taking over the World. In her new book, Saini sheds light on gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology and how women and their role in science in these streams need to be rediscovered. The book is about all the experiments and research covered by Saini to prove one simple fact: women’s research and discoveries were completely ignored and that’s when she shows us how white men feel that the old science is still what holds true and the new science is rubbish. Everyone should read this book – men and women – to understand what goes on behind closed doors in laboratories and how some myths need to be debunked when it comes to women and science. Excerpts from an interview with Angela Saini:
I know you have been asked this a lot, but tell us what prompted you to write Inferior.
I wrote a piece on the menopause for a newspaper a few years ago, and it opened my eyes to the enormous controversies that exist in science when it comes to women’s minds and bodies. I was amazed that contradictory theories exist to explain such phenomena as the menopause, with men tending to propose very different things from women. For me, this has been a journey of discovery, to better understand myself and all women.
How easy or difficult was it to write Inferior objectively? Were there points while writing the book that you felt enraged or frustrated?
I loved writing this book. The research was fascinating from start to finish, and it has utterly changed the way I think about myself. Often, I was surprised, sometimes I was angered, but mostly I was enlightened.
It was vitally important for me to take a balanced approach to writing this book. People tend to hold very polarised views when it comes to gender difference, and as a journalist, I wanted to navigate that minefield as carefully as possible by being thorough, balanced and not polemic.
Who are the women who have stood up to sexism in science?
There are many and there have been many. The women I interviewed for my book include Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Adrienne Zihlman, Patricia Gowaty, Gina Rippon, Daphna Joel and Kristen Hawkes. But there are many all over the world who are challenging terrible research on women by replacing it with better research and more evidence-based theories.
Is there anything you’d like to say to women readers of your book?
This book is for everyone, men and women. But for women in particular, I would like them to feel empowered. When they face sexism, I want them to be able to hold this book and say “that’s not true”, and know that they are on solid ground. For me, this book is ammunition against those who think that women are less intellectually capable than men.
What other books would you recommend on the same subject?
I would very much recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work, including Mothers and Others, and The Woman That Never Evolved. Also, Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is excellent.
Why do you think there has been this sexist baggage in science? Is it because men think anything scientific must be their forte alone, or is there more to this?
I think it has everything to do with the fact that science has been male-dominated for so long. Until the middle of the 20th century, many women didn’t have access to higher education or the scientific academies. Even today, they face harassment, discrimination and a culture that often prevents women from rising up the ladder as they start families. We all have stereotypes in our minds and it should come as no surprise that scientists have them, too. If science is dominated by men, they will bring their own biases to bear on their work.
In what ways can the role of women in science widen? I am sure there is no shortcut to this – but are attitudes changing?
Things are improving slowly. Women scientists are still often seen as exceptions rather than normal. Personally, I believe a female culture needs to be nurtured in scientific institutions, so women feel welcome and not as interlopers in a male establishment. When that happens, then women will be truly treated as equals in science.
Is there also an inherent bias because of which we don’t see more women graduating from technological universities or is it that they remain hidden because they don’t get opportunities?
There are barriers all the way from primary school onwards that prevent women from achieving what they can in science. Sometimes it’s simply the attitudes of parents or teachers, sometimes it’s direct prejudice or the influence of stereotypes, but whatever it is, we should never assume that the inequalities we see are because women aren’t capable. The evidence just doesn’t support that.
“Having more women in science is changing how science is done. Questions are now being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that was painted of women in the past has been powerfully tested in recent decades by researchers – many of whom are women, but men too – who have found it flawed. And this alternative portrait reveals humans in a completely different light.
Today, away from the barrage of questionable research on sex differences, we have a radically new way of thinking about women’s minds and bodies. Fresh theories on sex difference, for example, suggest that the small gaps that have been found between the brains of women and men are merely statistical products of the fact that we are all unique. Decades of rigorous testing of girls and boys confirm that there are few psychological differences between the sexes, and that what differences can be seen are heavily shaped by culture, not biology. Research into our evolutionary past shows that male domination and patriarchy are not biologically hardwired into human society, as some have claimed, but that we were once an egalitarian species. Even the age-old myth about women being less promiscuous than men is being shown the door. Here too, society plays a greater role in our behaviour than does our biology.
This is well-evidenced, careful work that challenges traditional ideas about what it means to be a woman. The picture isn’t of someone who’s weak or subservient. She’s not less able to excel in science, nor is she any of the softly patronising adjectives that have been used to mark her apart from men as a member of the fairer, gentler sex. This woman is as strong, strategic and smart as anyone else.
It’s a compelling body of scientific research which, rather than pulling women and men further apart in the gender wars, affirms the importance of sexual equality. It draws us closer together.”— From "Inferior"