Shweta, a friend of my sister’s, works in a multinational company in Mumbai. She reports to a female boss with whom she has massive professional differences. But mostly, she does not appreciate her boss’s tendency to continuously check on her work. She never complained about her male boss from her previous job, even though he was just as tough on her. What about her new boss does not go down well with Shweta? “Women are just not good bosses,” she says. “We’re too process-oriented. Men are result-oriented. It’s just how things are. It’s science.”
‘It’s science.’ A sentence we’ve heard to refute countless arguments. This is the argument that makes or breaks debates. And it’s the argument used to reinforce multiple gender stereotypes. For example, ‘women are caregivers, men are protectors’ and ‘men are meant to be promiscuous and spread their seed. Evolution, you know?’ or the more dangerous ‘women are not nice to each other. Biology, you know?’
We go to the altar of science as a final resting place for our doubts. To bring a Full HD clarity to all things vague. But is it? How do we know if what science tells us about gender is true? What if scientific studies themselves are gender-biased? Where does that leave us answer-seekers?
To that end, Angela Saini’s book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story will bring you both comfort and anxiety.
In her new book, Saini, a British science journalist and author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, dispels gender stereotypes that claim to have a basis in scientific fact. She examines why and how gender-based assumptions are actually unreliable.
Over a phone call from London, where she resides, Saini says, “Science needs to be more humble. It needs to acknowledge that bias can exist. But more than that, consumers of science need to create a shift in their understanding of it. Science is not an obsolete stream of facts. It’s a process of rational endeavour that can sometimes go wrong. And so it has, in multiple ways in which its studies decode women and our participation in life.”
Saini’s tone is immaculately measured, her enquiry sincere and her empathy with women wronged by biased studies, palpable. What she questions, she also answers by including prominent voices in the fields of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, medicine, history and psychology. For example, she attempts to dispel the common ‘scientific’ stereotype that men have the biological tendency to be dominant by including neglected studies in evolutionary biology like those of bonobos, a species of monkeys that appear to be matrilineal as opposed to their far more studied, male-dominant cousins, the chimpanzees.
Going back to monkeys, a discussion ensues on The Planet of The Apes movies (as one does, along the primate phylogenetic tree). Saini loves science fiction and says, “Science fiction is flawed, but it is very reflective of the times it was born in. I really enjoy Isaac Asimov. Women are always secondary characters in his books. But his books are so reflective of society in the 1920s.”
Like in Asimov’s books, society has a highly binary view of gender. You know those ‘men and women can’t think the same way’ or even the ‘all women are emotional’ arguments that you hear. But what we call scientific differences or similarities are just social influences. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story addresses this and so does Saini. “In the 1970s, it was observed that girls and boys in American schools performed differently. Girls didn’t perform too well. But as society changed and environments started becoming conducive for women, the performance statistics improved. When all these so-called gendered differences are put to actual scientific test devoid of societal influence, they don’t hold ground,” she says.
Another notable aspect of the book is Saini’s emphasis on inclusion of female voices in science. She traces the history of women who’ve ghost taught students at universities during World War I because “men wouldn’t want to fight a war and come to study at the feet of a woman”. In her quest to uncover if there’s a scientific basis to gender bias, Saini curates prominent voices in science and backs every sentence with reference material, sometimes to the point of being taxing to the reader. But any poetic loss in writing is made up for through verity in her research.
Saini says she felt an urgent need to write this when she was pursuing a story about menopause and came across an article published by McMaster University in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Computational Biology called ‘Mate Choice and the Origin of Menopause’. The article argued that women had evolved to experience menopause because men do not find older women attractive; that it was science’s way of weeding out women who were not ‘mate-worthy’. No prizes for guessing that the scientists conducting this study were, you know, men.
The article infuriated and fascinated Saini into examining this assumption herself. “I came across so many controversial studies that were entirely one-sided. So I made it my mission to find such studies and find out if they have any basis in fact,” she explains.
She spent two years of her life travelling from Somalia to San Diego to Bedlam in search of histories, mythologies, medical cases, activists, scientists and researchers to compile this comprehensive book of go-to arguments against ‘scientific’ sexism.
Writing Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story completely changed how Saini thinks about herself and the world. It helped her question her own biases and challenge inbred stereotypes, with an inquiry to examine the layers that precede its conclusions through and anecdotes.
That’s exactly what the book reinforces. Reading Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story is an unlearning process. It does not just attempt to disprove biological stereotypes of gender. It periodically asks you to redefine science, shedding any understanding stemmed in bias. It expounds that science does not say women can’t be equal. Society does. Don’t use science’s name to further an oppressive agenda. Use it to challenge it.