Inferior by Angela Saini – A Look at Women in Science


Inferior by Angela Saini – a BBC journalist who covers science, takes a look at women in science. I had read her earlier book ‘Geek Nation‘. That I really enjoyed as I discovered the cutting edge scientific research happening in India. In this book I expected her to write about women scientists. I assumed they are a minority. However, what turned out is the research on women. Not a subject that many of us think about.

Angela Saini begins by telling us how the leading scientists like Charles Darwin were biased against women. Their biases made way into the research they did, making it a skewed research. If you think women of that age did not respond, she shows a communication between Darwin and Caroline Kennard – a feminist where she questions the scientist. His response clearly shows his bias. Angela then shows you how the bias creeps in the scientific hypothesis, data, and outcomes.

The first part of the book is devoted to exploring the basis of popular myth among scientists and probably the public – Women are inferior intellectually. For a long time, scientist community believed that there is a scientific basis for this belief. Remember the theory that women have a smaller brain. There is a belief that during evolution, males developed far more than females. Next myth Angela Saini explores is ‘Women belong to the private sphere of home and men belong to public sphere’. Haven’t we grown up listening to this!

Second chapter onwards is an exploration of various popular theories. Like – Females get sicker but males die quicker. It moves on to say that the biological risk is against the boy. But the social risk is against the girl. In this chapter what amazes you is that percentage of male samples that are taken for gender neutral research vis-a-vis female samples. Even the drug discovery is seriously biased towards the males.

In the missing five ounces of female brain, Angela Saini talks about how scientific fact or what was assumed to be scientific fact was used to hold women back in their fight for equality. There is a hilarious instance of how the myth – Women are good at multitasking and men at a single task was made due to a press release error. Imagine how much terror it has caused in our lives. The eventual finding is re-assuring – We are good at what our brain allows us to be good at. And as we become good at something, our brain changes to enable that. So, if you are made to believe you are bad at Maths, you will perform badly in Maths.

In the women at work chapter, there are interesting studies on women’s contribution to the family. A look at the ancient tribes where gender roles are very different makes this an interesting chapter to read. I was surprised to read that when we say Hunter Gatherers – hunter refers to what men do and gatherers refer to what women do. The chapter concludes by saying beyond the fact that women give birth and lactate, culture can dictate almost every aspect of what women and men do.

There is an interesting exploration if women are as chaste or are they just exercising their choice. Are women as sexually active as men are? Do the number of sperms men carry and the no of eggs women carry have an impact on their sexual activity? Finally, there is a discussion on human females continues to live after their reproductive age. In most species, they die as soon as they are past their reproductive age except humans and whales. Is it to nurture the grand children or children? In fact, women in different parts of the world see old age differently. In the west, they detest it and try to keep it away as much as possible. But in rural India, they welcome it as it comes with a lot of authority.

There are ample examples from the animal kingdom all throughout the book. A lot of experiments were conducted on apes who are probably closest to human behavior.

Some interesting snippets from the book:

  • We think the scientific method can’t be biased or loaded against women. We are wrong.
  • In Bolivia, women account for 63% of all scientific researchers. In central Asia almost half and in India one-third. Iran has high proportions of female scientists.
  • Cambridge would wait until 1947 to award degrees to women on the same basis as men.
  • In 1974, Nobel for the discovery of Pulsars wasn’t given to Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who actually made the breakthrough, but to her male supervisor.
  • Francis Galton – Darwin’s cousin created a Beauty Map of Britain by secretly watching them and grading them from ugliest to the most attractive.
  • Neuro-feminism – an alternate approach to brain science that attempts to root out stereotypes and look at brain objectively.

Overall, it is an interesting read. It will give you an insight into what goes in laboratories around the world. It kind of demystifies the research work. And sometimes makes you wonder if this is what they call research.

What may put you off in this book Inferior is too much of research reference. This is great if you are a research scholar, researching on the subject of women in science. As a general reader, it puts you off. I am not really interested in who submitted what paper at what conference. what I am interested in the developments that took place, experiments that were conducted and what came out of them. A bit of storytelling rather than reporting mode would have made the book easier to read.

My biggest complaint about this book Inferior is its soft cover. And it’s bad alignment of the text. The inside margin is so small that I had to literally tear the book to read. It was a very uncomfortable book to hold in hand and read. I took much longer to read due to this. Hope the publishers take note of this.

If science interests you, go read this book, Inferior.

You may buy this book – Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini at Amazon.

Read following Books on Women:

Inferior by Angela Saini

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