Xconomy Bookclub: “Inferior” Peruses Science’s Historic #MeToo Bias

Xconomy National — 

In his now infamous memo, ex-Google engineer James Damore cited scientific evidence to illustrate why women may not be suited for jobs at some of today’s leading tech companies.

Women, he argued, are biologically more attuned to “people” jobs rather than “thing” jobs, like those in technology. But what Damore was doing, others pointed out, was cherry-picking science that he found agreed with his already-established world view.

Science, it turns out, can be very subjective, depending on how results are used and the biases held by the researcher at the outset. Frequently, those biases have worked against women— both as professionals in academia and through inadequate health care. That’s the subject of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” by science writer Angela Saini.

Saini argues that it’s been the scientific process itself—or more specifically, the scientists who follow that process—that has helped reinforce stereotypes like those described by Damore. But “decades of rigorous testing of girls and boys confirm that there are few psychological differences between the sexes, and that the differences seen are heavily shaped by culture, not biology,” Saini writes.

“Inferior” attempts to discover how our attitudes toward the sexes have evolved by looking at scientific literature over the past 200 or so years. Saini seeks out gender studies in in biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology to try to understand how women became regarded as inferior among the sexes.

“The sexism of science coincided with the professionalism of science,” Saini writes. “It’s impossible not to expect that the very bias that kept women out of science for centuries might have affected the very blood and bones of their work.”

Consider Charles Darwin. He of course helped people gain a better understanding of human evolution, but his views on women were definitely retrograde. Saini points to correspondence between Darwin and Caroline Kennard, a Boston-area woman who was a women’s rights activist in 1881. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn[cq] by man attaining to a higher eminence—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands,” Darwin writes in “The Descent of Man.”

Certainly, there were women scientists who persevered in their work despite the sexism. But, frequently, their contributions were simply stolen. Saini writes how male colleagues took credit for the work of a number of female scientists. Rosalind Franklin helped to decode the structure of DNA but the Nobel Prize was given to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. Saini points out that in 1974, the Nobel for the discovery of pulsars was not given to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who discovered them, but to her supervisor Antony Hewish.

Saini also writes about medical research and innovation, and how, for the most part, those efforts have largely failed to include women. Largely, researchers had tested drug candidates on men and assumed both the therapeutic effects as well as any adverse reactions would be the same. But that one-size-fits-all approach has, for example, resulted in less research on ailments like autoimmune diseases, which affect far more women than men.

Humans like to organize the world around themselves in categories, Saini writes, so it’s understandable that there is satisfaction in assigning strengths and weaknesses to people, including by sex. But some of the research she cites shows that, while the sexes have differences in a variety of traits, the overlap between them is far greater.

And she points out that male superiority isn’t the norm in all human societies. In Tanzania, men of the Hadza community take the lead in child care. Women in the Nanadukan Agta community in the Philippines are the hunters who use bows and arrows and spears to bring food back to everyone.

“There is no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters, or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes,” Saini writes.

Getting science to reflect its objective ideal is what Saini calls the “final frontier of feminism.” Given the current reality of “alternative facts” and the generally science-phobic rhetoric that dominates a lot of public policy discourse, this might be difficult to accomplish.

But Saini expresses optimism that while scientific endeavors can end up being flawed through human error, science “can only be a self-correcting journey toward the truth.”

“The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us as equals,” she writes.