Inferior: Angela Saini picks apart women’s representation in science

By Jack Eardley

A lot of things may be said about the differences between genders. Some, like a man’s ability to parallel park a car or a woman’s legendary multitasking skills are patently absurd. Others seem so woven into society that they could plausibly hold some truth, even if it is unpleasant to consider it.

Angela Saini was invited to Durham by Palatinate Scitech to give a talk discussing women and their portrayal in science. The talk was based on her new book Inferior: How science got women wrong which is a critically acclaimed, careful and insightful dissection of the evidence on both sides of the discussion of gender differences.

Charles Darwin, the brilliant scientist behind the Theory of Evolution, famously believed in significant biological differences between genders even towards the end of his life. It was his view that whilst women were morally superior they could not compete intellectually with their male counterparts. He saw the enormous social divide between genders in Victorian England and concluded that biology must be the answer.

Darwin, however, should be read in the light of the society he was raised in. As many will know, women could not vote, could not easily own property and could not be members of Parliament. Even the scientific community was not exempt from the patriarchy as Marie Skłodowska Curie was not permitted entry to the French Academy of Sciences even after receipt of her second Nobel Prize in as many fields.

Many scientists have studied chimps and concluded from the clear patriarchy in their society and the strong genetic overlap with humans that the human patriarchy was a biological inevitability. It was only after scientists decided to study our other close relative, the bonobo, and observed the obvious matriarchy that they realised the story was perhaps not quite so simple.

Saini believes it is not surprising that a great deal of scientific research claims to have found neurological or biological differences between genders, often with questionable methodology. Recent scientific work, done both on psychometric testing and tribal culture, has suggested that if differences do exist between genders, they are most likely too small to be confidently measured.

The Mosuo women’s kingdom in Western China, for example, is a functioning example of a human female matriarchy. In this society, women not only hold disproportionate power and control, but behave with a lot of the characteristics we often consider masculine in the western world. They are openly promiscuous and the lead members of families; women are listened to simply because they are women.

Saini, however, does not offer a conclusive explanation for the presence of patriarchy in the vast majority of human societies. She only says that patriarchy was created and not inherent; that it had a start point and, similarly, it will have an end.

Photograph: Stephen Curry via Flickr

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