A new book debunks scientific myths that men and women are inherently different. Here’s why this matters.
Science proves that boys are interested in cars and computers, girls in dolls and cooking sets, right? Women are empathetic and nurturing, men are analytical and uncaring — it’s just biology. For as long as I can remember, clear gender disparities were presented to me as scientific facts. I never questioned what I learned and made entire life decisions based on this information. This includes shunning my love for physics in school because I believed that I lacked a natural aptitude for it, to assuming the lion’s share of child care and housekeeping duties as an adult.
Then I read British journalist Angela Saini’s book “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.” Saini uses science and facts to disprove, well, the shoddy science that tells us men and women are inherently different. I’m intrigued that Saini chose to assess sexism in science; it’s an industry that has long been touted as being exempt from human bias and misconceptions.
The book uses a litany of examples to disprove “facts” that have long been held dear in communities around the world. One I found particularly fascinating is that women aren’t biologically predisposed to raise children and in fact, there are primate communities where male animals look after the young, or equally share care. I was always taught that females were the primary caregivers across the animal kingdom.
Why should we care? Well, our societies and workplaces have lost out on fully harnessing women’s abilities due to these scientific errors. Women are often passed over for leadership opportunities based on the wrongful assumption that they are naturally suited to child care. Scientific fields have also faced acute shortages in attracting, retaining and advancing women, because girls are often told they’re better suited to other careers.
I’m glad “Inferior” cites an important 2012 study at Yale University that perfectly highlights bias in action. Over 100 scientists were asked to evaluate fictional résumés for a lab manager opening. The only difference between these identical résumés was that half had an identifiably female name, the other stated identifiably male names. Scientists of both genders rated the résumés with a female name lower on competence, “hire-ability” and ability to be mentored. The scientists were also prone to offering lower starting salaries to these fictional women.
And it wasn’t just men discriminating against women, so steeped is prejudice in the culture of science, Saini writes. “Sexism isn’t something that’s only perpetuated by men against women. It can be woven into the fabric of a system.”