Monday, May 29, 2017

Inferior by Angela Saini

It's common, nowadays, to hear news reports proclaiming that there are too few women in STEM fields.  With such a feminist consciousness-raising of women's and men's equality being proven time and time again, how could this be?  Angela Saini, in her deeply researched book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story, provides historical information, current research of sex/gender, and personal & anecdotal evidece to contribute to the discussion of why women may have been excluded from the sciences. 

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which focuses on different focuses of gender research over the years.  In Chapter 1 - "Women's Inferiority to Man", the author discusses the blatant sexism of such preeminent researchers as Charles Darwin and others who laid the foundation for what would become sex/gender research.  Darwin explicitly believed that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men, and in his grand theories of evolution, he viewed men as more evolved than women.  Chapter 2 - "Females Get Sicker but Males Die Quicker", looks at the longstanding preference in some cultures for male babies, the differing average lifespans between men and women, and why men are thought of as the stronger sex.  The chapter opens with a personal story from a hospital administrator in India that illustrates the endemic desire for male offspring, and the horrific lengths to which her husband's family abused her when she was pregnant with twin girls."

Chapter 3, "A Difference at Birth", focuses on whether males and females are born distinctly different from each other, or if the differences are learned or acquired during the course of interaction with the environment.  Based on the research presented, although differing positions abound, often what is observed and intuited to be biological is in fact due to bias and preferences which are reinforced and passed down over many generations.  Chapter 4 - "The Missing Five Ounces of the Female Brain" is externally concerned with research studies that found, on average, women's brains are 5oz smaller than those of men.  Internally, it looks at cranial and structural differences between the brains of the sexes, and what (if anything) can be learned from studying them.  Spoiler Alert: When brain size measurements are corrected for differences in size of their human containers, the size differences truly disappear.

In Chapter 5 "Women's Work", the author looks at research surrounding the types of societal duties that humans and other animals perform, by gender, to see if there are commonalities or differences, and what those findings could illuminate about our experience.  Chapter 6 - "Choosy Not Chaste" examines the differences in expressions of sexuality between females and males.  Why are women supposed to be demure, virginal, and faithful to one partner while men are allowed be playboys, have many sexual partners, and enjoy their bodies to a great degree?  The author also dives into cultural stereotypes, religious dictates, and the various double standards that exist for men and women when engaging in the same behaviors.   

Chapter 7 - "Why Men Dominate" turns its gaze to the preconception that men are superior to women because they, on the average, are stronger and more aggressive.  Since the stereotype is that women are seen as having always been subjugated by men, the thinking leans toward there being some kind of evolutionary reason for it being so.  In fact, there are many societies - human and animal - where the culture is a dominated by females (which I call a matriarchy), which puts holes in the common narrative.

The final chapter, Chapter 8 - "The Old Women Who Wouldn't Die" examines what happens to women as their fertility decreases, in particular - menopause and its discovery are investigated.  Some historical researchers have come to the conclusion that, because a woman's role is the production of offspring and furthering the genetic line, once she is no longer able to perform that job she is essentially of no value.  It was fascinating to learn that many of the symptoms that most American women experience during menopause are not universal to all human females.  Therefore, there may be some cultural constructs that go into the felt experience of such a biological process.  The chapter also discusses the attitudes that societies have towards its older females, and how those attitudes may be based on stereotypes and unfounded biases.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story is a fascinating read, whether you are a woman or not, and whether you are interested in STEM or not.  Its focus may be science, but the book is full of tenets that are applicable everywhere - feminist generalities that encourage readers to think more critically about the way they view the world around them.  Through the direct interplay between personal anecdotes, interviews, and research, the argument is made that unfounded human biases, not biological inferiority, are the reason for why there are so few women in STEM.  The scientific process, historically and current, is not perfect.  By increasing our awareness of our own flaws and shortcomings, strengths and similarities, we can make progress towards a more full and robust knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

Librorum annis,