If there is one book you need to read this year, it is Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Author Angela Saini sets out to “knock down the greatest barrier that stands between women and full equality — the one in our minds.” She succeeds.
“It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.” Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
In 1881, writing a letter addressed to an activist for women’s rights, Charles Darwin explained why he believed women were the intellectual inferiors of men. Claiming that his belief was based upon scientific principles, he asserted that women were simply not as evolved.
“To be fair to Darwin, he was a man of his time,” Saini notes. “His ideas may have been revolutionary, but his attitudes towards women were solidly Victorian.”
Inferior is undoubtedly a feminist book, but Saini didn’t set out with an ax to grind. Instead, she approaches the idea of women’s inferiority with the investigative rigor and levelheadedness of an experienced science journalist. And with such capable handling of her subject and the obvious depth to her research, it would be difficult to find someone more qualified to write the book on how science got women wrong.
According to Saini, her book was originally inspired by a piece she did for The Observer called Menopause: nature’s way of saying older women aren’t sexually attractive?. “It was just fascinating” Saini said in a video for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It really encapsulated the battle for the sexes, the gender wars, so I used that as a springboard to investigate the wider issues of what science tells us about women.”
One of the ideas she establishes early on in the book is that although men and women have some physical differences, the variation between them is not as pronounced as some may claim. This is important because inherent biological differences are at the heart of the argument that men and women perform differently on certain tasks — and the reason women have been barred from many male-dominated fields, such as STEM.
But how can we be unbiased in research about biological differences, especially in regards to performance? How can scientists, both male and female, aim for objectivity when one sex seeks to assert itself while the other defends itself? Only through good science can the answers to difficult questions be found. In the study of sex and gender, Saini shows us how bad science has fueled misconceptions and bolstered the argument behind many unfortunate stereotypes.
Perhaps the most notorious study documenting differences between men and women was that of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose paper claimed to prove that important sex-related differences existed in the behavior of newborn babies. In 2005, when president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers suggested that innate biological differences may cause the “shortfall of female scientists and mathematicians”, Baron-Cohen used the study to defend Summer’s argument. The famous cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker has also used Baron-Cohen’s study to defend the idea that innate differences between men and women could account for the lack of women seen in STEM careers.
Saini doesn’t necessarily scoff at the study. She is careful to include voices from both sides so that reader may look at the argument from every possible perspective. However, she is also careful to point out where the science is flawed. Throughout her analysis, interviews with those involved, and with a dose of journalistic skepticism, Saini is in constant pursuit of the truth.
What she finds is that much of the science that claims to indicate substantial differences between the brains and behavior of men and women is sketchy at best. Through rigorous research into each infamous study, she tears down sexist stereotypes about women one after another — and just as the title of her book claims, she shares the new research rewriting the story. Saini has compiled and highlighted the most convincing evidence for the argument that bad science has gotten a lot about women wrong.
Biologically built for different roles – or not?
Have you ever heard that men and women are complements of each other? It’s rooted in the idea that each sex is better at certain things than the other. Women are more empathetic, men are more systematic. Men should be breadwinners, women should bear children. It’s not our choice — it’s the way we were biologically designed for separate spheres.
As Saini explains, “The notion of complementarity thrived throughout the Victorian era and ultimately became epitomized in the 1950’s middle-class suburban housewife. She fulfilled her natural role as wife and mother, while her husband fulfilled his role as breadwinner.”
Comments that women are “better with people” and “more in tune with their emotions”, and therefore cut out for roles involving those skills, may seems like praise at first — especially when men tout it as such. But the idea of “natural roles” in complementarity is really just another way to confine women to traditional stereotypes. If a scientist believes that there are natural roles justified by biological differences, it could potentially affect their research. There’s even a word for this kind of bias: neurosexism.
Coined by psychologist Cordelia Fine in 2010, the term is helpful in describing research that falls back on these unproven stereotypes. Although “study after study has shown almost all behavioral and psychological differences between the sexes to be small or nonexistent,” Saini notes that there are still scientists who argue that “men and women perform differently when it comes to social cognition tests, spatial processing, and motor speed” — despite evidence indicating that this isn’t the case.
Even in children, as Cambridge University psychologist Melissa Hines and other experts have demonstrated repeatedly that “boys and girls have little, if any, noticeable gaps between them when it comes to fine motor skills, spatial visualization, mathematics ability, and verbal fluency.” In fact, as it turns out, there are on average more differences between individuals than between the sexes.
This hasn’t stopped bad science — studies with overestimated or exaggerated results, skewed statistics, or improper methods — from becoming the root of many stereotypical assumptions of men and women. These issues of origin can lead to a lot of confusion and disagreement between the members of the scientific community — how can a study be valid if it was building off of an unproven stereotype?
Throughout the book, Saini remains levelheaded and sharply focused. She succeeds at bringing a balanced perspective through multiple voices to approach each topic. She’s not a so-called raging feminist; she’s a science journalist taking aim at an injustice.
I would write more about the many fascinating topics Saini explores in each chapter – some of my favorites included her discussion of anthropologists and the “grandmother theory” about postmenopausal women, as well as research in mate guarding behaviors and sexual promiscuity. But nothing I could tell you would be anything near as eloquent and thorough as what Saini has already written. Her book is astonishing. Captivating. Surprising.
There is nothing more I can do than urge you to read it. Read it immediately. Ignore your precariously tall stack of books waiting to be read. Put everything else on hold. Ask a friend to read it with you. And give away your copy to someone when you’ve finished.
This is the most important book of the decade. You will want everyone else to read it, too.
UPDATE: Want to help get a copy of Inferior into U.S. high schools and encourage the next generation of women in science? Consider donating through the GoFundMe campaign!