Angela Saini: using science to tackle gender and racial prejudice

By Holly Adams

Profile interview science journalist, broadcaster and author Angela Saini.


“As long as there is gender disparity there is always more that can be done”, answered Angela Saini to a question concerning new government initiatives encouraging girls to pursue science and engineering at university and beyond. “But what we really need,” Saini continues, “is an end to stereotypes that women aren’t as suited to scientific careers. It hampers their potential for progress from the offset.”

It is this societal need to break down prejudices that inspired Saini’s most recent book, Inferior: How Science got women wrong (2017). Yet the inspiration for this book also came from Saini’s desire for self-exploration and a better understanding of what science actually tells us about being a woman. Her book tackles the question, “how can I learn more about myself through science?”

“What we really need is an end to stereotypes that women aren’t as suited to scientific careers”

With so much contradictory research out there, Saini tries to present what biology really has to say about the differences between men and women. However, she accepts the fact there are large gaps in our knowledge and scientific research. Although Saini expresses “the target is women of all ages,” she hopes that her book can appeal “to everyone” as it takes a whole society to tackle established gender stereotypes.

What makes Saini’s work particularly compelling is the neutrality of her approach to research. Saini reflects how she began the process open-minded and prepared to find differences between the male and female brain. Her rational approach is especially impressive in her exploration of the controversial work of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose book The Essential Difference (2003) maintains a stark biological difference between men and women thus arguably justifying the societal stereotypes.

Saini has been applauded by both the left and right of the press for the objectivity of Inferior. In response to this praise, Saini answers, “scientifically I have to interrogate everything thoroughly regardless of whether I agree with it ideologically and politically.”

Yet with all recent studies considered, Saini found an almost complete absence of differences between men and women. The stereotype about female inferiority does not at all match the science. From this scientific basis, Saini falsifies claims that patriarchy was inevitable. “I don’t think there is anything natural about male domination”, Saini argues, “there are matrilineal societies suggesting history could have been very different.” Saini later points to 21st-century societies and nations where women are taking the lead in scientific research such as Bolivia, where more than half of researchers are women.

Saini knows too well of the stereotypes preventing women from choosing scientific careers as, during her time studying engineering at Oxford University, Saini was the only girl in her class. Yet despite being amongst a tiny minority, Saini expresses how she felt “nurtured and supported by the staff” throughout her undergraduate and masters degree.

It was partaking in student journalism followed by six months working in India for a current affairs magazine that led Saini to pursue a career in journalism and reporting. Going on to discuss her time as a reporter for BBC London, Saini expresses immense pride over her work on exposing bogus universities in the UK. Her investigation triggered a change in government policy and helped many individual students get their money refunded.

Yet in 2008, Saini chose to leave her career at the BBC in order to pursue science journalism and to spend more time with her young family. But although Saini maintains a lot of respect for her colleagues and the BBC as an institution, on reflection she expresses concerns over the poor representation of ethnic minorities behind the scenes;“the ethnic minorities we see on the TV are not representative of the newsrooms. There is an imbalance although things are improving.”

“I feel that racial lines are coming back and that really scares me.”

It is partly this experience that drives Saini’s next book tackling racial stereotypes from her scientific standpoint, inspired by her concerns that “I feel that racial lines are coming back and that really scares me.” On further reflection of her time as a reporter and broadcaster, Saini refers to Naomi Wolfe’s The Beauty Myth (1990). The Beauty Myth criticises the media for selling a myth to society of a normative image of beauty. Although it was published nearly three decades ago, Saini reluctantly suggests there is some accuracy of Wolfe’s accusations in the media today.

 

Saini accredits the success of Inferior to the current political climate. After Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016, sexism has soared up the agenda and women are looking for answers as to why many still maintain a view of female inferiority. Yet Saini’s concern for women in scientific careers extends from simply the stereotype. Saini expresses concerns over the prominence of sexual harassment in the field, “in my generation we put up with a lot from men. Almost every woman I know has a story to tell.”

After the recent exposure of the sexual harassment case of an Antarctic Researcher, David Marchant, Saini expresses hope that sexual harassment in the scientific field is, at last, being addressed. She hopes for a world where “everyone should feel safe and comfortable” whether that is in Hollywood or science.

Time’s up.

Photograph: www.angelasaini.co.uk

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