Not so Inferior: The science of gender inequality

3 Nov 2017

Angela Saini, science journalist, author and broadcaster. Image: Angela Saini

In her latest book, British science journalist Angela Saini looks at how science got women wrong. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

When Angela Saini went digging into Charles Darwin’s attitudes about women, she was taken aback. In his correspondence, the highly influential and respected scientist doubted whether women could be the intellectual equals of men.

“I was surprised by the depths of his views,” said Saini, an award-winning British science journalist, author and broadcaster. “I knew that Victorian male biologists were pretty sexist but I didn’t realise how entrenched that sexism was, both in research and on the personal side.” 

One perspective to explain, if not excuse, the attitude is that Darwin was of his time, and the culture of science has continued to reflect its milieu of a patriarchal culture.

In her book, Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the storySaini explores the actual science, the research itself, that challenges widely and long-held assumptions about differences between women and men. 

Eye-opening research

While we may neatly apportion various traits and roles between men and women or girls and boys in our culture, the data shows a more complex picture. “The cognitive and psychological differences [between the sexes] are very small when they do exist, and they are not enough to account for the gender inequality we see in society,” explained Saini.

In her book, she trawls through the evidence, and some of the most eye-opening insights come from studies of primates and of hunter-gatherer societies that point to how culture, rather than biology, shapes gender inequality.    

“The narrow view is that we are a naturally male dominated species; that the mother is the sole, natural child-carer, and men are natural hunters,” said Saini.

“[The research] opens the universe up a bit; it allows us to see the true human variety out there. Humans live in a huge spectrum of situations, matrilineal to patriarchal. There are societies where men do the bulk of the hunting and very little childcare, and there are many societies where men and women do everythingThat betrays the fact; that [means] it can’t be biological. 

Building networks  

Inferior has won praise from many quarters, not least from reviews in The Guardian and New Statesman, and even actor Daniel Radcliffe.

So, is there hope for change? “There is a lot of good research being done by men and women in the sciences,” said Saini. “People are starting to question assumptions that they took for granted.”

Saini is currently doing a tour of universities in the UK to tie in with the book, and to build up networks of women who can form friendships, find allies and support each other.

“Men have gained power by backing each other up, having their own networks,” she said.

“If women can do the same, create our own networks and support each other all the way down the ladder, then we have our strengths, too.” 

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication