In ‘Inferior,’ a Story of Science’s Long Collusion With Patriarchy

Writer Angela Saini deconstructs the cultural expectations that have meshed with scientific research to reinforce beliefs about male superiority and gender.

In the United States and much of the West, we've been conditioned to believe that women and girls are less interested in science; more suited to domestic pursuits; and biologically inclined toward monogamy. Beacon Press

“We trust scientists to give us the objective facts,” British science journalist Angela Saini writes in the introduction to Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. “We believe that what science offers us is a story free from prejudice. … Yet when it comes to women, so much of this story is wrong.”

This, of course, is maddening, and the details Saini offers about how science has bolstered gender bias will likely enrage you. At the same time, she avoids shrill condemnations. Instead, Saini provides a step-by-step deconstruction of the idea of male superiority and addresses the cultural expectations that have colluded with scientific research to reinforce our beliefs about what is inherent in men and women.

Saini looks at numerous bugaboos that are pervasive in Western societies: the idea that because female brains are slightly smaller than male brains, they’re inferior; the idea that women are better at certain things—like emotional nurturing and caretaking—than men due to biology; and the idea that women are less driven by lust and more inclined toward monogamy than their male counterparts, among them. Many of her arguments involve analyzing cultural biases since she is well aware that preconceptions tend to color our analyses and findings. In fact, she writes, despite the perception that science offers the unvarnished truth, and is always objective, reality tells a different story.

Take the scientific fields themselves. In the United States, we’ve been conditioned to believe that girls and women are generally disinterested in anything science-related, whether biology, chemistry, physics, or technology, engineering, or mathematics. We expect females to have difficulty grasping spatial reasoning and all things mechanical. Yet, Saini writes, “In Bolivia, women account for 63 percent of all scientific researchers. In Central Asia they are almost half. In India … women make up a third of all students in engineering courses. Iran, similarly, has high proportions of female scientists and engineers.”

If women are innately disinclined the enter these fields and are less capable of grasping the subject matter, shouldn’t this be universal? If not, it’s clear that something else must be responsible for the ability to engage these subjects.

Ah, yes, that something is good old sexism. Although its expression is culturally varied—expressed differently in Asia and South America, for example, than it is in North America or Europe—it is always potent.

Still, regardless of place, the idea of female inferiority is nothing new. Indeed, the biblical notion of female life descending from the male rib was supported by countless writers, philosophers, religious leaders, and medical professionals. It’s also been repeated so often that it became an assumed truth, articulated ad nauseum by Christian and Jewish theologians and supported by scripture.

No less an esteemed thinker that Charles Darwin hammered away at women as weaker and less savvy, repeatedly writing that women were generally superior to men in “moral qualities” but “intellectually inferior.” Evolution, he posited, had made the genders complementary, with women developing into empathetic and gentle souls ready for the wife-and-mommy track. Men, on the other hand, had evolved differently and were meant to be society’s movers and shakers. This essentialist presumption was not Darwin’s creation, of course, but was part of the era’s social fabric, reinforced by popular culture. Nineteenth-century poet Coventry Patmore, for one, went so far as to describe women’s greatest pleasure as serving men. And despite the outcry of feminists who denounced this ridiculous idea, their objections did not gain traction in mainstream circles, leaving them isolated and marginalized.

Then, by the late 19th century, when it was discovered that the female brain was, on average, 5 ounces smaller than the male brain, a fierce ideological battle erupted. Male scientists argued that—you guess it—size mattered, while women like teacher and writer Helen Hamilton Gardener (the pen name of Alice Chenoweth Day) maintained that it was the ratio of body weight to brain weight that was most significant. Her insight emphasized that if weight trumped all else, “a creature as huge as a whale, with its correspondingly huge brain,” should be rendered a world-class genius.

“Today,” Saini writes, “it’s well established that brain size is related to body size;” nevertheless, the assumption that men’s brains are different from women’s brains persists.

Among those promoting this are Raquel and Ruben Gur, professors at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. For more than 30 years, the pair have been studying brain images to ascertain variations in the brains of men and women. Their findings? “Men have more connections within the left and right halves of their brain, while women have more connections between the two halves of their brains.” Saini reports that the Gurs’ claim that this proves that women outperform “males on attention, word and face memory,” while men do better on tests involving “spatial processing and motor and sensorimotor speed.” The upshot, they wrote in 2012, is that men “have an easier time seeing and doing.”

As you likely expect, other scientists disagree. Neuroscientist Craig Bennett showed that it is possible “to read just about anything into a brain scan.” To prove his point, he selected imaging of an Atlantic salmon. The scan showed “three small red areas of activity close together in the middle of the fish’s brain,” proof, some scientists argued, of ongoing mental activity. The problem? The fish was dead!

Others, including psychologist Melissa Hines, have repeatedly demonstrated “that boys and girls have little, if any, noticeable gaps between them when it comes to fine motor skills, spatial visualization, mathematics ability, and verbal fluency.” Some women and girls excel in these fields; others don’t. The same is true of boys and men.

“We like to justify the social system we’re in,” Saini concludes. “If everyone around us thinks that women are less rational or worse at parking, even the thinnest piece of information that reinforces that assumption will be pasted into our minds. Research that confirms what appears to be obvious seems right. Anything that contradicts it is dismissed as aberrant.”

True enough. What’s more, Saini notes that it is our culture’s unquestioned beliefs about everyday life—what we believe about gender, sexuality, and what it means to call oneself male or female—and not science, that is at fault for sexist restrictions and limitations on who can do what.

Teach girls to play chess, and they’ll become strategists and aggressive competitors. Give boys dolls or stuffed animals, and they’ll play with them. Grow up among the Himba people of Angola and Namibia, and nonmonogamous partnerships and sexually explicit banter will be the norm.

The sciences, like disciplines as varied as anthropology, history, and sociology, can support the traditional order or present alternative ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. Not surprisingly, those scholarly disciplines that put men and women on more equal footing are typically denigrated by those who fear the loss of power or status if women grab a seat at the table or enter the clubhouse. Nonetheless, as more and more feminists enter the sciences, they are prodding one another to address the assumptions made by patriarchal cultures and are questioning pretty much everything. As they do, they’re making it clear that gender differences are not necessarily based in biology—a topic that Saini could delve into more deeply especially as our awareness of gender fluidity and transgender experiences is continually expanding. Saini’s failure to unpack how science has buttressed the male-female binary itself is a huge omission. But her account compellingly argues that science can upend myths about intelligence, sexual desire, in-born skills, and human nature.

“Women are so grossly underrepresented in modern science because, for most of history, they were treated as intellectual inferiors and deliberately excluded from it,” Saini writes. “It should come as no surprise, then, that this same scientific establishment has also painted a distorted picture of the female sex.” Saini’s Inferior makes a significant contribution to exposing these gaffes, and prodding the scientific community to make a clear break with ideas that reinforce racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.