Contemporary, Interviews, Science

How Science Got Women Wrong: An Interview with Angela Saini

By Rebecca O’Brien

Angela SainiAngela Saini is an English science journalist, broadcaster who studied Engineering at Keble College, Oxford. Her recent book ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story’ explores scientific research into sex differences from birth to death. She interviews many scientists about their new research which casts doubt on society’s well-held sexist stereotypes.

Is there actually any reasonably strong evidence to show differences between men and women?

I think the jury’s still out in many ways. While a lot of research has been done we understand the brain so poorly; we’re at such an early stage of research. Even though we have quite sophisticated technology now, the brain is such a complicated organ that I don’t think we can draw lots of usual conclusions about sex differences. But with the evidence that we do have so far seems to suggest that there aren’t very profound differences between men and women. So for example it’s impossible for neuroscientists with any given brain to know whether it’s male or female. In terms of psychological differences when tests have been done (especially these days when we have lots of data on lots of different people) the differences appear to be very small; fractions of a standard deviation. So I think it is very hard to draw solid conclusions about sex difference, but I think the future at the moment seems to be that there’s very little psychological difference between men and women, but that’s not to say there isn’t any at all or that future research might show some.

Would you say that society has influenced the potential biological sex differences that we’ve seen?

It’s possible that both have played a part, it’s possible that biology may have played a part and that society and culture has also played a part. I don’t think biology can explain all the profound gender differences we see in society (divisions of labour, inequalities in terms of female representation in lots of different areas), so society and culture must play a huge role. We know that it does because we know that there are different pressures on men and women, that people make different choices for men for lots of different reasons. For the majority of history women were excluded from lots of professions, from higher education and even from school education. We know that there is really good evidence on the social and cultural side, and it’s very powerful so we have to at least consider that that has had some part to play.

In your book, Inferior, you say “you cannot overestimate how important Adam and saini-inferiorEve were in terms of constraining and shaping people’s ideas about women”. What do you mean by this?

This was talking about the response to Darwin’s ideas in Britain and the US. Obviously in other countries they aren’t so important, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t in other religions in which there is this idea of the essential difference between the sexes. For many centuries these were the ideas that people lived by. These age old stereotypes were shaped by religion as well as culture; this wider patriarchal society.

Do you feel that there have been biased studies resulting in inaccurate results while studying gender?

Yes definitely. We know now that bias does affect research. When historic experiments have been repeated the research has got different results, so it’s possible that when those experiments were originally done there was some bias there. A lot of people think of science as when a study is published that that is the unvarnished truth, but that’s not the way it works. Science is a process; studies are done, that then have to be replicated in order for us to be confident of their results. When it comes down to human behaviour and human biology it’s very complicated as we’re all so different. So the standards about being sure about a result are even higher because any group of people that you study will be different from the next group of people.

Keble College, Oxford

Does it matter how science sees sex differences to women going into the field?

I wouldn’t say women are being put off by the study of sex differences as there are many women in this field. At the moment science can’t tell us a great deal, but it gets reported a great deal. As a topic it’s very fashionable, so the issues around it are even more interesting than the research itself.

Do you believe that feminism should influence scientific research? When the former is a political movement, whereas the latter is meant to be objective.

The scientists that are feminists that I interviewed are obviously scientists first, so their objective is to be completely objective! But given that there is a large body of work that for a long time has been biased against women, and we know that it has, then what a feminist perspective has provided is a corrective. This is really important because otherwise we’d still be living with a lot skewed ideas about men and women, if it hadn’t been for women in the 60s and 70s coming along and saying ‘actually this doesn’t ring true, I’m going to look again at these results’. They weren’t going in trying to shape the results according to their prejudices, they were just saying ‘as feminists maybe we should look again, and try and do this more rigorously’. The research they did was the more rigorous, fair and thorough research because they wanted to get it right. They didn’t want to believe untruths from either point of view. This is one of the reasons I wrote this book because there is a lot of information from both sides, and I just wanted to know the truth. The fact is that both sides have a point, but the research is often less reliable than you think, so thinking that you can make a political point by taking selective studies is not possible, but you can certainly inform yourself better if you have a political point of view by looking at sciences.

You mentioned in your book that not many people of opposing views read Patricia Gowaty’s research on Bateman’s study into the mating of fruit flies, do you feel this is a prominent issue in science?

I don’t know how widespread a problem this is. Obviously this is a part of science, if someone critiques your research you should read it, because it’s only scientific if someone says you got it wrong then you must incorporate it into your own work and perhaps think again. The fact that some people aren’t doing that is worrying because the way that ideas are spread are by not just getting published, but getting read. If things aren’t being read, then mistakes aren’t being corrected, and that’s a problem for everyone.

Do you believe that if there were conclusive proof that there were biological differences between the sexes that society would be able to surpass this?

Yes, I don’t see why not. We can build society any way we want. If there are differences, they will be average differences so there will be enormous overlap. For example, women are now allowed to take combat roles in the RAF: if some women can do this job why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity even though all women can’t do it? Just as it’s the case that not all men will be able to do that job. If there are averages it doesn’t make sense to exclude an entire group of people just because some of those people may on average not be able to do it compared to others. We should all be given an equal chance even if in some fields we don’t see parity because there may be differences between the sexes, that doesn’t mean that everyone should be excluded. That’s just unfair, especially when a job is open to men that are physically incapable of doing it that it can be closed to all women, including ones capable of doing it. Equality of opportunity is only fair when we see equality in outcome, there’s only time to tell. I believe that from the research given so far, what differences there are, I don’t see why we can’t have greater equality than we have now.


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