Feminism and Science, What We Know and How Far We Have To Go: A conversation with renowned journalist and author, Angela Saini - The Fold

Feminism and Science, What We Know and How Far We Have To Go: A conversation with renowned journalist and author, Angela Saini

Journalist, author and researcher Angela Saini shares her surprising findings on the impact of gender in the worlds of science and technology.
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Image Credit: BBC Radio

Image Credit: BBC Radio

Earlier this year a Google employee was fired after circulating a memo he wrote in which he argued there are clear differences in ability between men and women—and this is due to gendered biology. Thus, he claimed, these tendencies are grounds for unequal representation of women in tech because women are not “made” for certain jobs.

Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube, published her thoughts in response, mostly to her daughter who asked, “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”

To which she writes: “That question, whether it’s been asked outright, whispered quietly, or simply lingered in the back of someone’s mind, has weighed heavily on me throughout my career in technology.” And so again, society reminds us what we can and can’t do, what we are and aren’t good at, and where our place “naturally” lies.

Angela Saini wants this to change. Her newest research-based book is the antithesis to these perpetuated incorrect assumptions about gender; she uses science to counter sexist claims of inferiority. In Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, Saini patiently and persistently argues for an alternative story about women, one that uses scientific data to reveal that, actually, we are as strong, strategic, and smart as anyone else. (But we already knew this, of course.)

We chatted with Saini about her work and its importance in today’s political climate, and also about her thoughts on feminism, sexism, and science. Her ultimate goal? “I want women to feel empowered; to feel that they know themselves better; that they have the tools to go out there in the world and say ‘I can do it.’ Also to understand that equality is not just a political ideal; that equality is every woman’s natural, biological right. We deserve this.” Read on for more!

Good morning, Angela! Congratulations on your latest book—a must-read. Let’s start by you giving us a quick overview of your professional background.

I started off doing an engineering degree at Oxford, which I loved. I got involved in student journalism when I was there so I decided to try journalism with a view of falling back on engineering if it didn’t work out. I got a training internship at ITN, which is a very big broadcaster here in the UK. I trained there for a year then I spent two years at the BBC as a news reporter. I then left to focus on science journalism. I wrote my first book in 2011, which did really well; and I still work for the BBC (radio documentaries and the occasional television spot). Inferior is my second book.

Tell us what prompted you to tell the story of science and women.

I am a feminist but I feel that one of the big gaping holes in feminism is the sciences. So for a long time women, for very good reasons, have been wary of science, and what it says about women, because there has been so much sexism in the field. There’s this biologically determinist issue where we don’t want to be pigeon-holed by what biology dictates. And for a long time biology has suggested that women have a certain role and men have a certain role and we should play to those strengths—but what I wanted to do in the book is show (to women and to men) that we are not constrained by our biology. For example, we have a survival ability that men don’t have and we are just as intellectually capable.

Psychological studies have shown that there are very few gaps between men and women and that our human history shows that women played an incredibly important role in the evolutionary story; but not just that, they’ve done it hand-in-hand with men. So before agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago and for the bulk of human history, men and women would have led pretty egalitarian lives. And, when we are thinking about equality and feminism, we forget all of this or more often we just don’t know scientific fact around sex differences.

I want to give women the tools to understand themselves better but also to go out there into the world with ammunition against those people who say we are not as capable and we are not the same.

The central myth you refute is that women are biologically hardwired as the inferior sex and that our cultural biases perpetuate these presumptions. How do we override this in our daily lives?

So that is my goal—to get people to question. Because science isn’t there yet. I think what really became clear while I was doing my research is that a woman's body and mind is a real scientific battleground. There are very tense gender wars within the sciences.

So when you read the book, I want people to get some sense of how to measure the science. Such as when you read the newspaper and it makes claims about gender differences—say women are not as good at parking or men are not as good at multitasking—to be able to read that critically and put it in context.

How can we break the societal cycle of supporting gender differences?

I think fundamentally we need to think about research in a very different way. It’s very natural for us as human beings to want to group together, to create categories, and we do that in our everyday lives. So it’s no surprise that men and women, given that thousands of years of patriarchy, of women being treated differently, of gender differences in the way culture and society treats us—to look at us in different buckets is a perfectly natural thing to do—but not a scientific thing to do. Science says we must question our assumptions and biases.

We are individuals. The extent of individual difference is so profound—it overrides any other group difference (geography, race, ethnicity, gender, everything). Therefore we need to think more carefully about individual difference.

Your research on Darwin and evolutionary theory is fascinating to me—that even he argued women’s inferiority due to biology. And, you write, even women challenged these ideas during his day; Caroline Kennard wrote to Darwin: “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.”

I don’t think patriarchy is hardwired into our biology—because if it were then the whole history of humankind would have been one of male domination, and we know that that’s not true. We know that in our past we led very egalitarian lives; we know that even today there are societies that are matrilineal (descent through the female line). The fact that there are exceptions show that patriarchy cannot be hardwired.

As a human species we are incredibly flexible. That’s what marks us out. Other species follow set patterns. We don’t do that—we show such variety. As a feminist what I take from that is we can build our society however we want to build it. And why can’t we build an equal society if we want to? And, in fact, that’s what we are trying to do in many small ways. And our biology is no barrier to that. So anybody who says we can’t build an equal society because women have a certain role are just wrong. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we can live how we want to live.

I think one of the hardest things for a woman is to grant permission to pursue whatever she wants; and your book, at the very least from a biological standpoint, will help women see there is no barrier.

I would hope so. And I still encounter that. I was on a panel discussion recently called Smashing the Glass Ceiling (about how to get women into the upper echelons of work) and the moderator asked the room: ‘How many of you suffer from imposter syndrome?’ And pretty much everyone put their hand up—and it really broke my heart! I just thought, why? Why do we not value ourselves enough to believe in ourselves? Why do we not have that self-belief as women? We’ve been denied so much for so many thousands of years as women; we have the opportunities now, we have the space to become absolutely self-confident.

How do you define feminism?

Well for me, it’s as simple as the belief that men and women should be equal. That they should have equal rights and have equal opportunities. And I’d be shocked if not everybody agreed with that.

Did the lense through which you view feminism change through the course of writing this book?

Yes, absolutely. Writing this book changed my life because it gave me completely new perspective on the world but it also gave me a new perspective on my feminism. I’ve read a lot of feminist literature but very rarely any from a scientific point-of-view.

I did feel as though what scientific feminists had written (like those I mention in the book) is not as well known as it should be. We should all be reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s books because they give us the long-view, the scientific point-of-view that’s crucial.

And, of course, in the fight for equality it shouldn’t matter what science says but it does matter. Every day we come across this barrier, people telling us we are not good enough, that we are naturally not able. We need ammunition against ideas like this—we need to have something to fight back with. And I think science does provide this. It can enlight and expand our understanding of feminism and what it actually means to be a woman.

What was your most important takeaway from your research?

It’s all important to me but I think what I value the most is spending time with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. I am so grateful that writing this book allowed me to read her work and spend time with her. If I achieve one thing and it’s getting people to read her books then I’ve done something worthwhile.

Women scientists have long been overlooked. And still recently and today there is a huge amount of sexism in the sciences and a huge amount of discrimination. There are many people within science that think of women as inferior; we have a long way to go—and it’s not just a problem for science, it’s a problem for all of us. Because what science says is directly related to the issues, prejudices, and biases that exist. So if we want what we know to be fairer and more accurate we need science to also be more fair and accurate.

Your book will go a long way to combat this! Do you feel your it is being widely accepted in the scientific community?

The reaction to the book has been so positive! I did expect there to be some resistance on the part of some scientists, especially since I openly criticize some. And I am trying to be as balanced as possible! I’m a journalist, being as fair as possible to both sides. Science is about being open-minded and accepting when possibly you may be wrong. Or even open to the possibility you may be wrong. I would hope that science would be the one propelling us forward when fact, I think, it’s often been holding women back.

I want women to feel empowered; to feel that they know themselves better; that they have the tools to go out there in the world and say ‘I can do it.’ Also to understand that equality is not just a political ideal; that equality is every woman’s natural, biological right. We deserve this.

I agree! And really, that’s how we move culture and humanity forward—having hard conversations, and using empathy when you listen and engage. So thank you, Angela, for prompting these discussions and giving women the tools to challenge the sexist assumptions that still stubbornly persistent.

[Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

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