Reviews Physics World  July 2017
(Spencer Sutton / Science Photo Library)

Inferiority is complex

Jess Wade reviews Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini

Despite more than 30 years of campaigning by learned societies and community interest groups, the statistics for women in science are grim. In the UK, girls make up one-fifth of A-level physics classes and only 9% of professional engineers. Although it has become trendy to talk about diversity, to offer “women in science” scholarships and to decorate laboratory walls with photographs of women in lab coats, there are still external forces at play that prevent women from being as successful in science as their male counterparts. In Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, author Angela Saini puts forward the idea that bad science has been used to endorse the cultural prejudice that women are both biologically and psychologically second rate to men.

The book contains an impressive collection of studies spanning psychology, biology and neuroscience, which highlight misconceptions – such as claims that women are “better at multi-tasking” or “don’t like playing chess” – that have become ingrained into our society, but have no scientific basis. An engineer by training, Saini makes complicated studies accessible for non-specialists: studying humans is a completely different discipline from most physics research. The language is clear and non-judgemental and Saini makes her case with meticulous detail, taking care to remain non-biased throughout. Inferior is not a collection of complaints about the lack of women in science. Instead, it is an objective critical analysis into what research has overlooked.

This is an admirable mission. Throughout the book Saini travels long distances only to interview people who seem to have made it their life’s work to prove women are weaker than men. For example, Saini was at an event promoting her previous book Geek Nation when she was approached by an audience member who made derogatory comments about women’s academic achievement. This is one of very few personal anecdotes in the book and serves to remind the reader of the need for this kind of work.

It was only in 1993 that it became a requirement to involve women as subjects in medical trials. It is well documented that women live longer and are more resilient to certain diseases, but there has been little biological investigation as to why. We are introduced to the gender studies of Simon Baron-Cohen – a professor of developmental psychopathy at the University of Cambridge, who has spent years trying to find differences between the brains of men and women – that are now open to serious questioning. Saini’s wit makes even the most depressing studies light and easy to read. In his own book The Essential Difference, Baron-Cohen’s description of the hobbies of those with a “male brain” (DIY, programming, tweaking sound systems) are lazy and dated, and Saini points out they are also painfully middle class and English.

Saini describes that something as simple as a misworded press release with a flashy headline can be reproduced in national newspapers, and our interpretation of such information is usually shaped by any prejudices we already have. Inferior transitions seamlessly from the human to the animal kingdom, where we have chosen to extend our human stereotypes. She visits zoos, observes animals and talks to experts. The public are likely to be familiar with the well-documented studies of controlling male baboons and hierarchical male chimpanzees; whereas we rarely read of the aggressive female bonobos or promiscuous bluebirds. She points out that if brain size is linked to intelligence, we’d expect blue whales to outwit us all.

There are an estimated 100 trillion synapses in the human brain – 1000 times more than the number of stars in the galaxy. The invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI), which maps brain activity, allows us to identify parts of the brain associated with specific tasks. Simple and seductive, neuroscience offered the promise of understanding everything from emotions to addiction. f-MRI became the 1990s go-to technique for characterizing gender differences. But the statistics were sloppy, and bold claims made using small sample sizes, combined with questionable peer review, led to results that could not be reproduced. In 2009 in a lab at Dartmouth College in the US, neuroscientist Craig Bennett famously recorded brain activity in a dead Atlantic salmon. His study demonstrated the dangers of statistical errors in f-MRI.

The book began as an investigation into the science behind menopause. Until the late 1930s it was regarded as a disease – one that drove women mad. Treatments were, at worst, lethal and varied from being sent to an insane asylum to poison. Once endocrinology had revealed the hormonal changes behind menopause, scientists tried to fix it. By the 1960s American drug companies were selling hormone-replacement therapy as an anti-ageing elixir. The “youth-restoring blend of oestrogen” promised to keep women attractive and interesting. In the 1990s dangerous links between oestrogen-replacement therapy and cancer were found, not to mention an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Today, hormone-replacement therapies are much more regulated and prescribed only for short periods of time – and the medical jury is still out on just how safe and effective they are. Male academics still claim that menopause is nature’s way of saying older women aren’t sexually attractive. Through discussion with acclaimed primatologist Sarah Hrdy at the University of California at Davis in the US, Saini demonstrates that menopausal women are far from useless. The “grandmother hypothesis” describes how older women who look after the second generation enhance social networks and ensure genetic survival.

Inferior is an engaging and harrowing study that easily moves between eras, continents and disciplines. Saini is a meticulous researcher whose attention to detail is evident in her interviews with scientists behind some of the biggest results in neuroscience and psychology. Instead of writing around the issue of representation of women in science, Saini identifies what science has got wrong about women. Her research demonstrates it is the scientists themselves who are partly to blame, peppered with in-built prejudice from centuries of cultural conditioning. It is my hope that this important book encourages scientists and educationists of the need for more evidence-based approaches to ensure equality and diversity in science.