Required Reading: Inferior reveals how science shapes our views of women

I read Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini because of its relevance to women in STEM — but I quickly realized that this eloquent take-down of science-backed male supremacy is for everyone. Without actually drawing conclusions about the biological differences between men and women, the book peels open decades, even centuries, of the biased scientific research that has shaped our views of the role of women today.

Saini focuses on the “nature” side of the “nature vs. nurture” debate, and she presents examples of the myriad ways scientists have attempted to isolate the “nature” of women: through studying modern-day hunter-gatherer societies, various species of primates, and just-born humans. As it turns out, there is no perfect way to examine this.

Saini highlights one particularly imperfect study that, despite its flaws, has gained a strong foothold in the way we explain the differences between men and women. In this study by developmental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, he had a postgraduate student flash pictures of a mechanical mobile and a human face at newborns, measuring how long the babies looked at each image to determine which they preferred. He linked the mobile image to an interest in mechanical objects, and the face to stronger social skills and emotional sensitivity.

Sure enough, the babies’ “preferences” fell along gender lines, and Baron-Cohen and his colleagues claimed overwhelming evidence for the biological difference between women and men. The study reinforced the widely held beliefs that women are born to be more emotionally and socially apt, and men are “wired” for systems thinking.

You can sense Saini’s skepticism as she describes this study, but she gets to the crux of the issue a bit later. Saini explains that the study came up in a book by Baron-Cohen three years after the study, in which he listed typical hobbies of women and men as further demonstrations of their innate differences. Saini describes this list as “slightly odd” and “peculiarly middle class and English.” Then she brings up the bigger problem: the way these conclusions play into ideas that oppress women. She further comments on the list, “It’s also difficult not to notice that the male brain appears better suited to higher-paying, higher-status jobs like computer programming or mathematics, while the female brain seems to fit best with lower-status jobs, such as a caregiver or unpaid helpline worker.” Hmmm.

The strength of Inferior is its revelation of scientific research like this — a glimpse at the house of cards that our understanding of male and female difference rests upon, and the bias that can affect every step: from the design of a study to the way the conclusions are received and leveraged.

Gif of Inferior book on someone's lap, opening and closing slightly. You can see plants on concrete steps and shadows moving on the sidewalk in the background.

Not only does Saini question highly cited research, she offers counter studies that characterize women in ways you may have never imagined. In some of the most inspiring parts of the book, she brings up evidence of gender equality in early civilization, primates with matriarchal social structures, and women’s ability to perform hard physical labor and unbelievable feats of athleticism. Consider this the “actually, women are way more badass than you thought, and science proves it” section.

This part of the book makes you wonder — why these aren’t these the studies that have informed our views? If the conclusions of these studies held up our assumptions about the nature of women, rather than challenged them, would we be more likely to promote them? As a society, do we cling to the scientific evidence that support our pre-established beliefs?

The book’s main takeaway is that we have to ask these very questions. We must question the conclusions that have been made, take a closer look at the methods of research, consider opposing evidence, and expose bias. Overall, we have to hold scientific research accountable knowing its real impact on gender equality.

One of my favorite passages from the work sums it up perfectly:

“You may think these struggles have nothing to do with the lofty world of science. Academics often balk at the thought of mixing their work with politics. But when it comes to women, there’s no avoiding it. Without taking into account how deeply unfair science has been to women in the past (and in some quarters, still is), it’s impossible to be fairer in the future. And this is important for all of us. Because what science tells us about women profoundly shapes how society thinks about the sexes. The battle for minds in the fight for equality has to include the biological facts.”

If you want to support more people reading Inferior (who wouldn’t?!) you can support this fundraiser to get the book to every public high school in BC, ON, and NS, Canada; or support this fundraiser to provide a copy to every junior and senior high school library in New York City.

Have you read Inferior? Share your thoughts in the comments!  


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