When the Observer wanted a story on the origins of the menopause; it wasn’t exactly surprising that they asked a woman to research it. What they may not have been anticipating was that instead, the author would become so fascinated by her findings that she would turn it into a book.
Angela Saini is an Oxford-trained engineer with a phenomenal career in popular science writing and journalism, in 2012 her Geek Nation was the Independent book of the year. Her latest book, Inferior, is already making best-seller lists, and with good reason.
Inferior poses a profound question: As scientists, we take it for granted that research will be fair and unbiased; that experiments will be ethical and that the results will be reproducible. But what if the people who wrote the rules were biased themselves?
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are celebrated as the “fourth industrial revolution”, but increasingly people report whoever programs the robots inflict their own sexism on the system. From hobbies to brain-size and intellect, scientific studies have tried time-and-time-again to prove there is something Inferior about women. But Saini isn’t convinced… and her work reveals just how wrong these “old wives tales” are. The beliefs still persist amongst serious academics that the menopause begins because men don’t find women very attractive, and that the smaller brains of women result in lower intellect. If that is the case, why do women live so long after they stop being “biologically useful”? If brain size is linked to intelligence, why aren’t blue whales in Mensa?
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have often given neurosexists a platform to make bigger and more dangerous claims. But these are the claims of scientists who have been educated, and work in, a world shaped by 2,000 years of patriarchy. Does where you come from shape the kind of questions you can ask?
This is, by its very nature, a provocative book. But what is most engaging about Saini’s work is how neutral she stays throughout. Rather than setting out to prove people wrong, Saini is trying to work out what is right. What is most heartening is that Inferior spans three generations of women’s equality; getting the vote, sexual liberation and the modern day – and at every stage she finds those determined to get gender studies right. We should push for equality not to be fairer to women in science, not just to level the playing field for all, but also for the good of science itself, so we apply scientific methods correctly in studying all it means to be human – whatever your gender. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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Blog by Jess Wade, award-winning researcher working on organic semiconductors at Imperial College London, and self-confessed Angela Saini fan-girl.